Connections

In this fifth week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about ministry teams and external relationships for congregations. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “Ministry Teams: Teeming with Talent,” and “External Relationships: Loving Thy Institutional Neighbor” (pgs. 201-240) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

I really enjoyed this week’s reading; I think partly because reading and writing has been a relatively relaxing activity compared to some other roles and projects I have been a part of in the last few days! I preached on Saturday and Sunday, and was the solo pastor out at my internship site’s second site 15 miles north of the main site in a more suburban/rural area.

Also, Saturday all day was our synod’s Educational Gathering, at which I assisted my husband’s workshop on social media, and led my own on “Being Lutheran in Today’s World.” I know, terribly broad topic, but we got through it—okay it actually went really well and the connections made in the room make me optimistic for how congregations and our wider church might celebrate and observe the 500th anniversary of the reformation come October 2017.

I'm not sure why, but this makes me think of reformation.

I’m not sure why, but this makes me think of reformation.

Speaking of connections, these two chapters, especially the second, are all about connections. The authors ground their argument for vibrant external organizational and church body relations by directing the reader to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a theologian, pastor, and founding member of the Confessing Church which protested against the Nazi party in the 1940’s. Nothing like bringing the heat by quoting Bonhoeffer! These authors don’t hold back. They write, “we cannot escape responsibility by asking questions about who is the neighbor [Luke 10:29]. The neighbor is at hand and far away. The neighbor’s presence (and need) breaks through our preoccupation with internal matters” (219).

True, this might sound a little trite, because ignoring internal matters may inhibit our capacity to serve our neighbors out there—but even then, I am making Bonhoeffer’s point for him. We are called to change “you” to “we,” “my” to “our,” and from “me” to “us.” Congregations maximize their efforts to serve their neighbor when they engage with external relationships, including institutional relationships (like synods, churchwide, non-profits, or for-profits with aligned values). When congregations engage with external relationships, new perspectives are gained, new questions arise, and possibilities to serve each other abound, knowing that we all have something to share [For a psych/social perspective, check out Robert Kegan]. At our synod’s Educational Gathering, we sang this hymn that has since rang in my ears, for better or worse:

Let us go now to the banquet, to the feast of the universe. The table’s set and a place is waiting; come, everyone, with your gifts to share.

The table is set and a place is waiting – come share your gift. Which, I know, the worst part of me wonders, “What kind of gift can they share?”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when we open up ourselves to love and follow Jesus, we open ourselves to be changed by our neighbors, who also show us the face of Christ. Individual neighbors, external organizational relationships, institutional bodies, you name it. Engaging with external relationships open up a congregation to be changed. But isn’t that the posture in a weekly worship service? Don’t we confess our sin of being human, full of shame, pride, greediness, and ask for forgiveness that turns us radically outward to embrace and serve others? Don’t we pray in the Lord’s prayer “your [God’s] will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” a will that is not ours, but a will that is always is driving to change our hearts to be for the least of these and bring the good news of new life and everlasting life to every person whom we meet?

At the end of four steps to build external relationships (231-233), the authors end with the step of “involvement,” saying, “A warning: they will change your organization.” Now, I may or may not have let out a tiny gasp when I read that, honestly, “Oh no, is he talking about my church?” But how many times will we choose the posture “Not my church” instead of “Yes, Lord, my church!” I literally wrote this in the margin:

[Star]

OH gosh.

Risk

is for the

sake of

the gospel?

Eek.

oh boy.

YAY

YEA.

That last one was triple underlined, and think I’ve reached the edges of WordPress’ editing tools. Either way, believing in the good news, which the predicates sharing the good news, involves risk. It involves risking your identity because in some way you can and will be changed by the relationships you make with individual neighbors, communal neighbors, institutional bodies, and external groups.

I’m all for it, but I don’t have a congregation yet! Ask me in a year if I think this is a good risk, with a worth while opportunity cost (see Timothy, I’m learning economic words). I’m hopeful I will say “You betcha.” or “Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me,” or a simple, “Why didn’t I say yes earlier?”

In what ways are you connected beyond yourself to others? In what way is your church, or the church, connected beyond itself? Has this been a positive or negative thing? How does making connections open the door for change?

 

Source:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 381-383.

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Showing up & being present in our differences

My blog will keep going, but my reflection series from my “Adults and Lifelong Learning” class is done! This post is a little long, but stay with me! It’s been so fun to learn, laugh, and reflect with Prof. Mary Hess this Spring as I complete my Master of Divinity degree. What’s next? I’ll give an update when I have a clear update, ha! … serenity prayer, anyone?

This class has been a significant place of learning in my brain and heart, so thank you Mary! Thanks to Timothy, my spouse, for our conversations that often have been the impetus for many of my blog writings, and bigger life thinking – we’re shaping our story together, Timothy, and my gratefulness is too deep for one sentence (and I thought you were the one who uses run-on sentences). Thanks too to YOU, my friends and family in learning and leading, here in Minnesota, in Washington, in between, and in farther off places than that! Stay in the arena and keep asking questions and leading out a place of hope and passion. I can’t think of a better quote to sum up my hope, and for us, as big-hearted, broken, beautiful people:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. – Teddy Roosevelt.

I shamelessly pulled this from Brene Brown‘s TED talk, and this quote inspires me to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I think for her too. I think I can safely say that if you read my blog with any regularity, you saw that coming. Oh Dr. Brown. I cherish your email reply to me, even though it was only 12 words long: “Hi Allison, Check out Grounded Theory by Glaser and Strauss. Thanks, Brené.” Yes, she put an accent mark above the “e”. I literally just sighed. Some day we will change the world together, Brené, some day.

Anyway, as Mary and I were batting around possible topics for this final reflection, she suggested looking at a parable through the lens of what I’ve been learning about how people make meaning an all sorts of varied and different ways.

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We literally were sitting like this (not really) when we dreamed up this post. But this is Mary & me!

I said parables are cool, but what about the experience of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well? Talk about two worlds smashing together. A male, a Jewish religious leader in an authoritative position. A woman, unaccompanied, who has been married five times, from Samaria. Running into each other at a well during the hottest part of the day in the Middle East. In the spirit of the Major League Baseball season starting, this is a pickle.

Just so you know, this isn’t an attempt to put a Jesus-bandaid on lifelong learning. I could quote the Bible with glowing images of our beautiful creation, or little smiling children running to Jesus. But I don’t think Scripture was meant to be cherry-picked in order to support a point. At least, I don’t think that gives Scripture enough credit, or really, it’s own voice.

The Samaritan woman at the well is important to consider as we wrap up this class on how people learn and make meaning, because it shows our insatiable desire to be known by our people and by God (and yes, I’m using the Bible to make a point, but as a wider, frequent theme of the Bible I’m going to say it’s ok). This is not a Bible study or a one-size-fits-all reflection. I want to show that there are a lot (a bajillion?) of points of views on the Bible, and as people in the buzz of spiritual questions/reflection, our task is to be empathetic with each other’s ways of making meaning, no matter how well thought out, complex, or black and white they might be. Why? Because your neighbor wants to be loved (spoiler alert: and is worthy of love), just as much as you are.

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The Northern Lights, in a diversity of color like our diversity of reflections on the Bible.

Curiously enough, this is the space and complexity that Jesus finds himself in when he runs into this woman at a well thousands of years ago. Jesus and the Samaritan woman aren’t just neighbors from different sides of town (80-90+% of US citizens live in urban spaces, think about how hard it is to wrap our heads around this?). They are from different nomad, rural traditions and cultures – Jesus, a Jew from Bethlehem, and this woman from Samaria who the writer of John shares little about. These are cultures with deeply embedded communities and practices, and histories that root them not only in centuries but in millennia.

As much as I am scared for them as a former camp counselor (for legal reasons, rule of three), I’m scared for them if their people, or their neighbors, or their family comes and finds them: a woman and a man from differing and clashing cultures speaking alone. Jesus’ crucifixion (and this woman’s almost-sure stoning to death) could have come quicker than we know them to be. I know, the Bible’s gross, but who are we kidding, isn’t our world now, today?

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In case you print this out, have fun coloring this inaccurate portrayal of the Samaritan woman! Ok that’s my sass, now we can move on.

This is a text that comes up in a lectionary (a widely published rotation of Bible passages assigned for each Sunday) that somewhere around 4 million+ ELCA Lutherans and other Christians hear every three years. Many of those people hear in the sermon that the point of this story in the 4th chapter of John is that Jesus saves, even adulterous women.

I don’t want to belittle this perspective, but with some deeper digging into this Scriptural text, I realized that this woman was a survivor of a system that punished women. This kind of thinking that men are good and women are bad is the black and white thinking we find in 3rd order thinking (according to Robert Kegan, the author of In Over our Heads which has informed my learning this semester). Just to refresh our thinking, here’s what 1-5 orders of thinking/consciousness means:

To be clear I’m not saying that those in a more 3rd order of thinking are sexist. Not at all. I am saying that having a 3rd order frame of mind, and perpetuating systems that function in 3rd order frames, provides a fertile environment for victimization, “us vs. them,” and over all “othering.”  I think the frequent sermon on this text screams that our church, its cultures, communities, leaders, and conversations, are often functioning in a 3rd order space. There is only room for the conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate good, and therefore this woman is the ultimate bad that Jesus was merciful enough to pardon and save.

We have to remember that the point of this model is to provoke empathy in each of us for those using the same frame as us, and for people who are at different frames. Me saying, although I am tempted to, “The conclusion that ‘The Samaritan woman has committed adultery and is therefore only just barely save-able by Jesus, and bless her heart she is’ is stupid and I’m never coming back when this preacher is preaching again,” is not empathetic nor pushing us toward being in community like God calls us to be.

So what do we do? What do we do when we go to a church, for the 1000th time or the 1st time, and hear a sermon that is close-minded and so black and white that we couldn’t even stay to the end of the service?

Do we shake the pastor’s hand at the end and say “Good sermon” or “That was a terrible sermon! How about you try living as a first-century woman who is only valued for her slave labor and ability to give birth as she gets shuffled from brother to brother”? Or, do we come back next Sunday, say nothing, and instead connect with your friend back home via Facebook Messanger, only using Pusheen emoticons?

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If you were wondering, yes, this was a very intense conversation.

Honestly I don’t like any of these options. They scream anger, passivity, insecurity, and isolation. This isn’t what Jesus wanted for his followers 2,000 years later, this isn’t what Kegan would want as people use his model to examine how we make meaning, and this isn’t what I want as someone who doesn’t know what the future holds but knows that we are made our fullest selves together, working toward one mission, not apart in isolation.

Hey, do you have time for coffee? I’m often free Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons…

We meet at Starbucks (of course), and instead of undercutting their sermon with historical critical analysis, cultural appropriation, and gender dynamics in first-century Palestine, I ask:

Where are you from? … Does your family still live there? … How did you meet him/her? (if relevant) … What brought you to where you work/study/lead/learn now? … Wait, how did you get from there to here? … This might be an odd question, but why is that important to you?

My point is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. I wonder if a significant percentage of pastors and people-oriented roles have experienced hurt in one way or another in their life. This is why they serve, which is beautiful. But it’s also why they sometimes find comfort in 3rd order thinking, in black and white paradigms, because their structured thinking gives them comfort. It gives safety.

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I’m learning that the biggest way that I can change someone’s hurtful, harmful, or dark behavior, theology, mind, or way of thinking is not through teaching, nor sermon-ing. It’s by example. It’s by showing up. It’s doing little things when I think no one is watching. It’s preaching when I don’t think anyone is listening (accentuated by a little girl last year asking me after a service, “Who made God?” and I had no answer); it’s recycling when I could have just dumped it in the trash; it’s writing when I think no one is reading, it’s dancing when I think no one is watching, it’s caring for my body and eating/buying healthy when I think no one is paying attention, it’s caring for and filling with pride for my spouse, one of my most cherished vocations, when I it feels like too few people care what lies in his future.

Lecturing someone who has preached from a 3rd order frame of mind about the “adulterous” Samaritan woman will probably not make a huge impact. It might. But I think what’s more impactful, in lifelong friendship, in lifelong collegeial relationships, in lifelong communities (we’re just a small portion of the church!), in lifelong learning, is showing a different frame of mind, not lecturing about a different frame of mind.

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Growing into a 4th order frame of mind looks like venturing into the unknown with questions, wonderings, and possibilities.

This looks like me offering my historical/cultural analysis in my own leading, designing learning experiences, and preaching, and going back to school to get the credential that shows my church my value and leadership. Yes, there is a tinge of hurt in that last sentence, that it’s only through ordination that I am entrusted with leading in sermon-ing, and leading a community in experiencing communion and baptism, and leading in other ways… so far. Times might change. Systems might change. Expectations might change. It’s through showing up for coffee and modeling a different kind of meaning-making that might be prompt perhaps the most significant learning of all.

For reference and varying views on the Samaritan woman:
John by Karoline Lewis, Fortress Press: 2014. The Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, Westminster/John Knox Press: 1992. John by Gerard S. Sloyan, John Knox Press, 1988.

Lifelong learning: In the space of “What happens if…?”

Welcome to post number four of four for my independent study on adults and lifelong learning! I had a lot of fun collecting my thoughts and questions in my my first three posts on describing the current situation of adults in American life. All of this is heavily informed by Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

To remind ourselves, these are the five ways of making meaning according to Robert Kegan, illustrated by PhD candidate Steve Thomason:

For this last week I’ll be exploring how to lead in a congregational context where I, as a pastor, might provide care for my people as a crisis occurs, knowing there are multiple ways of meaning-making represented in the congregation. In the pews are a diversity of theologies, values, family of origin stories, and ways of making meaning. Knowing this, it’s not our job as pastors to make sense to every single one of these people, but it’s our task to provide them with ways to make meaning as they sort out their worldview.

Please note that this post will be soaked in privilege as someone seeking ordination to be a pastor through earning a Master of Divinity. People who are not pastors are loved by God and have the capacity (and beyond) for the kind of leadership I’ll describe here. For the sake of making this an effective case study, I will focus on one specific kind of leadership (pastor) because I will be one (or at least hope to be one).

To make “the rubber hit the road” with these five ways of making meaning, I want to consider a case study, like a crisis a church might face. Unfortunately it’s a dark one, but we live in a dark world sometimes. One kind of crisis that is specific and unfortunately reoccurring are shootings nearby or on campuses of schools. Since Columbine, I think everyone has had the thought, “That would never happen here,” and then a shooting happens near your home or where you grew up.

As pastors, we’re called to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper/Twitter feed in the other hand. We’re called to care for people, not fix people. We’re called to co-lead and co-create, not dominate conversations, spaces, or worship leading. In my denomination (ELCA), pastors are often identified as those who focus on, “Word and Sacrament,” and maybe this is what people mean by “Word and Sacrament”: holding the sacred conversations, spaces, and writings (Word) while helping others see God showing up in the tangible realities of our daily lives (Sacrament).

So what does it look like for a pastor to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper/Twitter feed in the other? What does it look like to care for people, and co-lead/co-create with them when a school shooting happens in their community, knowing that multiple levels of consciousness/meaning-making are represented in their congregation and surrounding community?

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Communities and churches can learn about team-leadership from these pandas!

 

In one way, I’ve actually done this before. On the evening of the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, I was working the front desk of my residence hall at Pacific Lutheran University. I gathered together other campus leaders and staff to put on a candlelight vigil and about 100 people came from campus and the community. It mattered to me that people had a place to go if they were scared, angry or lonely.

I thought about softening the blow with a nice, kind Bible verse. But the kind of response required to a school shooting needs to be precipitated by community relationships, emotional competency by the congregation, and serving our neighbors together, as church people and non-church people. This “prep” and the response itself is a challenge and almost unimaginable how such a feat might be met. I’m guessing it has been a struggle for pastors in the past. It will be a challenge for pastors in the future. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we should shrink away from it. I think I’ll start there.

I think it wouldn’t be smart to hide. This is a time when it’s a blessing and a curse that part of the role of a pastor is to be a Christian public leader, emphasis on leader and public.  I think holding community conversations (first agenda item: prayer) would be a wise and welcome move. Dispersing a survey on “what kind of education would you like to see or hear or learn from,” when really people are craving person-to-person conversation, would not be helpful. Not that I’ve ever been in this situation, nor wish to ever have to be in this situation. But that’s one thought.

People with 3rd order consciousness (see above video, from In Over Our Heads) see value in themselves as an individual, but have difficulty in seeing themselves as important to society. It would be easy for them to understand themselves as victims of these horrific crimes, or be anxious and anticipate themselves as being victims of future shootings. Shifting language from victim to survivor might be helpful, but that is how some (more than some) make meaning. In crisis mode, we either freeze with fear or we fight to make it right. Creating a structure to articulate our feelings and desires to help would be helpful especially for 3rd order thinkers.

And it’s not like those in 4th order (see above video) are doing much better. They see that our culture, community, or congregation is one among many cultures, communities, and congregations. Empathy might come from this, but also a feeling of helplessness. What can I do, if “that” culture of violence and hatred can terrorize “our” culture/community/congregation? This is of course facetious, because “that” culture is our culture. We are a culture that condones violence and racism and micro-aggressions against those at the margins, socially, racially, and economically.

These are just my initial thoughts, and I think they raise more questions than answers. Like, how to befriend the local law enforcement, school board, teachers, families and students. Much like other fields of work, I think congregational work is becoming more inter-disciplinary. But I think serving as a pastor in the midst of a crisis will be hard work, and I won’t know what all will be required until it happens. But building relationships with those around me as soon as I get to a place or setting and being centered in my own work and connection with God will be helpful and crucial.

California rain

California rain [listen].

It comes at the most inopportune times, but sometimes at the best times. Bring in the dinner, put up the hood, laugh as the local TV weather anchors panic (although with the drought now they probably would celebrate it).

And yet it’s familiar, it’s cleansing. It gives you pause and prompts a part of you to come alive in a quiet way. You draw closer, and you see what’s true, what matters, what draws hope out of you.

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California holds a special place in my husband’s and my heart. It’s one of the places he told me he was applying to for grad school as we sat on my college dorm bed a couple weeks after we started dating in 2008. Suddenly our daring, tingly fling felt very vulnerable and thin. But he promised he would call and Skype. So we spent the rest of our senior year anticipating a long-distance relationship. Terrified about what that meant. Excited about what that meant. Blowing kisses from cardboard surfboards.

He moved to Claremont, CA. We didn’t know what that would mean for us. But we kept in touch as I kept working in Washington state. We got engaged on one of his trips to Washington, and as I dropped him off at the airport for his direct SEA-Ontario flight, we didn’t feel thin. We felt full. I kept thinking, “I should feel anxious,” but I just couldn’t pull it off. Joy bullied anxiety away. It was the happiest goodbye.

When I took vacation time in the months following to see him in CA, I learned about his new world. Independence, health, walking, sunshine, Trader Joe’s down the street, stretching left-overs, meeting classmates, professors, friends.

One night it rained. It never let up. I thought, “I should feel anxious,” but I just couldn’t pull it off. Joy bullied it away. I watched the drops splash down on the patio outside. The geckos and bunnies had long scurried away. We watched the rain.

We’re coming up on five years of marriage. How do we sustain this relationship? How do we keep staying in love? Do we keep dating? Is something wrong if we’re dating all over again? Do perfectly in love people never have to ask these questions, and if so can I meet them? Are we the only ones?

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I’ve never been here before. I was anxious enough to hide this revelation from him, and upon sharing it, realized that he has never been here either. But we know where I come up short of his expectations. We know where he comes up short of my expectations. We’re learning where silence has amplified them.

The rain comes down hard. California rain can feel like it never lets up. But I think it feels like that when we isolate ourselves. It can feel like it won’t stop. It can feel like I’m the only one.

But it will stop. The puddles will evaporate. And the earth is grateful that there was ever rain at all because the rain is the only chance that it ever felt alive in the first place. The rain feels relentless. But with courage, I speak my hesitencies and worries and anxieties. And I find that my role is not to fix us. My role is not to guide us into perfection in this relationship.

We start together, from the basin, and we journey from there, in the rain. Then the rain doesn’t feel relentless; it looks like the dirt that’s left on your shoes after you go for a walk in the sprinkles; it feels like the hand on your back as your balance is steadied; it smells like fresh cut grass that wafts through the apartment before the A/C gets turned on; it sounds like rain showers scampering on the patio outside the window as sleep scoops you away to the night.

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California rain. It pours. In my anxiety, I turn to see if he feels it pouring too, but see him smiling, offering me to join him under the awning. All I can feel is grateful.

Sermon: forget, remember

I got to preach at Woodlake Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN this past weekend. Here’s what I said based on Matthew 16:24-17:8. Most people focus on the last half (Jesus changing/transfiguring on the mountain), but I focused on the first half knowing I had the most problems with it. It’s one of the most challenging passages, so why not! Thankfully this is done and written and preached. So here are my thoughts on “taking up your cross,” currently:

Hi, I’m Allison, I’ll be your preacher today. Pastor Fred and Pastor Diane asked if I would offer my thoughts today and I said of course. Their offer came right at the time when I realized that I wanted to go back for my Master of Divinity at Luther Seminary – which would lead to ordination to help me in my dream of being a professional leadership coach and facilitator for pastors and other leaders in churches. I’m pretty excited. It’s great to have friends like Fred and Diane who affirm me where I feel God is nudging me to lead and contribute to our church and the world.

You might recognize me from choir or from bell choir. I grew up in a church-y and musical family, so when Timothy became the interim worship and music director here at Woodlake in September, I knew I wanted to contribute my voice with these groups.

Now, you can’t really have a choir with just one person, right? Groups are just that – collections of people, united together for a common cause. Jesus keeps trying to get his disciples to see that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, and they get it for the most part, but they forget a lot. Because they’re disciples. Just like us. Humans.

This week’s gospel reading comes from the middle the book of Matthew, and Jesus starts to turn to the cross. Glimpses of the crucifixion start to become bigger and clearer, and honestly, more daunting and kind of scary. Jesus says to the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t telling a parable or pointing to another story or something to make a point. He’s saying, rather directly, that the way in which he will die, on a cross, is the way in which we must live our lives – open, sacred, scared, terrified, with vulnerability and courage. He says that his followers lose their lives, or ignore who they are, in order to find it. They have to forget who they are, so they can remember who they are.

They have to forget who they are, so they can remember who they are.

I don’t know about you but that is a terrifying concept. I have to forget who I am? I have to forget that I’m a Japanese-Norwegian-American, I have to forget that I’m a spouse, I have to forget that I’m going to seminary, I have to forget that I love frozen yogurt, shopping for cute and affordable yet functional purses, and instagramming pictures of my cat?

He's a really smart cat.

He’s a really smart cat.

Those things are all true by the way. I love my husband. I love our cat, and purses, and frozen yogurt. I’m going to seminary, to trade in my Master of Arts degree for a Master of Divinity degree for more job and vocational opportunities and credibility. One of my grandma’s is Norwegian and came through North Dakota to meet my Grandpa in Seattle. My other grandma is from Japan and learned quickly how to act American as she was suddenly a single mom raising three kids in Alaska in the 50’s and 60’s. Stories of courage, resiliency, trust, and adventure. These things don’t come from me; I find draw strength from those before me. My parents met as my dad handed my mom a music stand at band camp at their alma mater in Seattle. I can’t shake these stories. They are my story just as much as they are theirs. I can’t stop being these things. I can’t stop being scared of the dark, and staying up to read the gospel coming through female comedians’ autobiographies, and loving the feeling of being anonymous at a coffee shop, and feeling unstoppable because I have a spouse catches me every time I fall.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

He says, “forget who you are.” If you want to follow me, forget who you are.

It’s important to note that this verse has been used to justify terrible things – chapters, blogs, books have been written on the abuse that women sustain as they stay in abusive relationships because systemically they have no other options because they heard they had to “take up my cross”; racism that is sustained because certain races or ethnicities are worth forgetting because they should “take up their cross”; sexism that is sustained because it’s just easier to ignore the pay gap between men and women and women should just “take up their cross”, not just in this country, but all over the world.

These people have been told, “forget who you are.” Too often this verse has been used to justify corrupted power, and keep those at the margins just there – at the margins.

But the good news is that right after Jesus says this, God says to Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

My beloved.

Jesus is changed, the Bible says he’s transfigured, which means changed radically – and it’s like the writer of Matthew here just gave up and decided to stop describing what’s going on because it’s just out of this world. Jesus turns bright and white and shiny and something is happening. The disciples fall down they’re so scared. Just as quickly as it started, it’s done. Jesus and the disciples are on this mountain top as if nothing had happened and they start to head back down to their rest of their group.

What just happened? God says to Jesus and to the whole world – this one, this one here, he’s my beloved! I love this guy! That’s why, in church, like this morning, we read off our bulletins the confession, the psalm, why you hear someone preach, why we pray together and why we remember baptism and communion together; as a group. Saying this stuff to each other matters – God saying this to Jesus matters. Us telling to each other “you are beloved” – that matters.

But didn’t Jesus just say, “forget who you are?” Yes. And I am beloved? Yes. How?

That’s the mystery of God. The beautiful, frustrating, strange mystery of God. We are each beloved and unique and worthy of being loved by God and our people, and yet we are all part of something bigger than just me, or just you. We must forget ourselves so we can remember who we are; and remember that taking up our crosses does not mean hurting ourselves or others – but serving others out of a place of knowing you are loved.

We are all unique people with unique strengths and stories; and at the same time we are all part of something so much bigger that ourselves – a journey of following Jesus that is and will be challenging but beautiful, imperfect but perfect.

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It’s like when you jump in to the pool or a lake. Maybe you, like me, needed some encouragement by your parents or a trusted adult the first time you went in the water when you were a kid. It can be scary to jump in because your sense of you and your body, feeling your legs grounded into the floor, you have to give that up as you literally jump up and fall into the water. Suddenly you don’t feel that weight, or that gravity – all you feel is your body drifting through the water – moving slowly – but all the while knowing that the water is not there to eat you up like a black hole (it’s okay to use life jackets in this metaphor), but is there as you bob through and swim through. The water is all around you and beneath you.

You are a part of something so much bigger than yourself. This means that the group would not be the same without you. This group, this community is different when you’re not here. We can’t forget that this message is thousands of years old – Jesus tells us For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it – you have to forget who you are, so you can remember who you are.”

There are moments when we get in the way of ourselves. There are moments when we get in the way of our neighbor. It’s in these moments that Jesus is asking us to remember, my presence is at it’s fullest when we are together, with a united cause, dwelling in God’s love for the sake of the world. God’s presence is within you, and it’s also within your neighbor. It’s within the person behind you, in front of you, and sitting next to you. Jesus gathered disciples for the long journey through the cross and in the world – not a disciple – because the community of faith, in it’s beauty, in it’s ethnic diversity, in it’s socio/economic diversity, embodies the presence of God most fully. God’s mission has a church – one full of unique individuals who are called together to reflect Christ’s light in the world. The group – you, me everyone here – we must not forget that speaking and acting like we are beloved and deserve love – that changes lives. Stepping into new life with Christ means daring to believe that you are loved, that you are worthy of your own love and the love of your neighbor.

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, our presiding bishop of the ELCA, preached at an event this past year and asked, “What would happen if the church started acting like the resurrection actually happened?” They would know who they are and who they are not. They would forget who they are so they could remember who they are. They would acknowledge their uniqueness and embrace their unity as a bigger community, part of a bigger mission, and a bigger love that can only come from one place: God.

That’s my dream for this church. That we understand that taking up the cross means seeing the resurrection and losing ourselves to find our life in God’s beautiful and sometimes mysterious love. That we are so lost in our sense of unity in God that we don’t undermine each other, and we don’t lash out because of our insecurities and fear that no one will love us.

Jesus is asking us today – will you forget who you are, so you can remember who you are? Will you jump in the water, and take a chance that my love will catch you, and my love will surround you in the form of your ushers, greeters, directors, confirmation guides, parents, teachers, baristas, grocery store clerks, mail carriers, landlords, grandparents, or coaches?

Remember that Jesus says you are mine. You get to be someone’s.

And in this, you still get to be you. I still get to be me. But as we look toward Lent and see the fullness of God to come, we remember that Jesus remembers us as we get lost in each other, as we serve and love each other in this radical experiment called the body of Christ. In this community we get to lift up each other’s strengths, gifts, and stories – in that challenging and beautiful work of being a child of God. And maybe we could even eat a little frozen yogurt along the way. Amen.

The Cost

I had a curious interaction yesterday. It was Sunday, I was at church (this happens often). The church my husband, Timothy, is working at is going through some growing pains, thinking about who they are and who God is calling them to be as the community changes around them. It’s hard, beautiful, inspiring work of a courageous community of faith. I’m so proud of them and to be one of them.

They’ve realized that they hang out in cliques, like most churches. Choir people over here, teenagers over here, knitters over there, 1937 local high school graduates over there. So to work on blending together, at the coaching of Timothy and other leaders, we paired up for one whole Sunday morning with someone of a different generation of than us.

An adult my parents’ age sat in worship with a chemistry-loving 11th grader. A high schooler had breakfast with a choir member my grandparents’ age. It was kind of neat. I got to hang out at breakfast, during worship, and in a think-tank conversation after worship with an 8th grader named Emily*. Emily is the most motivated 8th grader I’ve ever met. She looks into your eyes when you have a conversation with her. When I asked her what the most important part of worship is to her, she did not say “the music” or “if we had a contemporary band.”

She said the most important part of worship is the children’s sermon. She’s in 8th grade.

She’s bright and empathetic. Her lack of hearing requires her to wear two hearing aids and you have to wave in her line of vision to chat with her.

Before worship, we chatted for a bit, but not very long. Her mom helped us interpret each other. Emily darted off before worship to hang out with her friends. So as much as I want to be best friends with everybody, I had a hard time getting to know Emily. We didn’t know how to communicate and we live in different worlds.

She’s in 8th grade, adopted, super into sports, friends are her life, mostly-hearing impaired hearing. I’m 27, married, discovering my vocations post-grad school, changing definitions of home, career, purpose, can hear.

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But I tried. We didn’t communicate super well. I didn’t use my limited American Sign Language skills but I totally should have tried. But the point is we tried.

By the post-worship meeting, I figured out that we could communicate through writing – so I asked her:

“Why is the children’s sermon the most important thing in worship to you?”

She quietly mouthed back, kind of loud, but mostly quiet, “Because it helps kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important.”

I wrote back to her, “Ok, what other parts of worship would you change, so that kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important?”

She took out her bulletin from the morning and flipped through page by page. Her eyes scanned and I felt a fire within her moving through the guide, that, as someone who is hard of hearing, is essential for her worship experience.

She stopped at the readings, the Bible stories that are read before the sermon, and she started circling words like “Thus” and other “old English” words that are scattered throughout a NRSV translation. She said these words didn’t make sense to her.

I bring up my morning with Emily because without the pairing-up we did at church as an intergenerational experiment, I probably wouldn’t have talked to her. We don’t look the same. She has hearing aids and we’re 10 years apart. But we tried anyway. I listened. I gave her a thumbs up after she lit the Advent candles during worship.

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Something has been heavy on my heart lately. The shootings and killings of black people in the US in the last couple weeks, without due trial, have made me so angry and sad. My Facebook feed has been a cacophony of justice-seeking pleas and Christmas shopping deals. How do we do live life like this? Reading through comments on blog posts where people pour their hearts out, calling for racial justice, make my stomach turn as I read the most black-phobic hateful speech.

Because I’m empathetic to a fault, I try and step into these people’s shoes. Why would they say such hateful things about black people? I don’t know if I’ll ever know.

But I know it’s cheap.

Saying hateful words is easy, it’s quick, it briefly releases energy, it’s at no cost to the writer/speaker.

You know what’s difficult and costs a lot? Being in relationship. Asking, “What’s your name?” Asking, “What’s at stake for you when you do/say these hurtful things? Asking, “What’s important to you?” Asking, “What’s your dream for this world?”

This is hard work because it requires listening, vulnerability, and humility. Costly, and difficult traits of the human experience, but traits that spur the most beautiful and strong movements of love around us. Love that our world is crying out to embody. Typing hateful racial slurs behind a keyboard is easy. Being humble and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, someone who believes differently, someone who belongs to a different ethnic and/or social community: that is hard work. But it’s work that we deep down know we are driven to do.

We long to connect with each other, and God call us to connect with each other in deep and meaningful relationships. One day, I’m hopeful that God “will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…. See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21: 3-5). This season that is described in the book of Revelation is coming, but honestly, I don’t think it’s coming soon enough.

In the church season of Advent, in December where we wait all month for Christmas and Jesus’ birth, we cry out “How long, O Lord?” How long until we see justice for the deaths of young black men across the country? How long until the judicial system changes so that racial injustice is a crime, not an expectation? How long until we stop cramming prisons with non-Caucasian individuals, so that the statistic of 1 in 3 prisoners are black, is an ancient artifact?

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Beautiful picture of the Stairway to Heaven (Haiku Stairs) in Oahu, HI

I spoke with an 8th grader named Emily on Sunday. She’s adopted and has hearing aids, and has the cheerful energy of a teenager. It was hard to communicate, and talking/reading lips was not perfect, but I hope to call her my friend one day. It’s hard work, but I think we can do it, and I hope she keeps talking with me when I ask, “Why is this important to you?”

*Name changed but story’s true.