Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Wonder of Ordinary Time

A few years ago, we stumbled upon the idea of using the part of the church calendar called Ordinary Time to bring a new energy to the summer months at Vintage Fellowship.  It has become some of the most sacred and amazing time of the year for many of us as it is a time to remove the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.  We bring ordinary life inside the church space. We sing songs from the radio. We eat bread and wine for communion, but also every other food that is beautiful and delicious.  This year we chose to anchor our experience in a word or phrase from this blessing from the Book of Common Prayer, asking different people from the body to share their thoughts each week.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.

May He bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.

This week, we considered "the wonders He has shown you..." and I wrote this to share.

When I was a little girl, I remember a morning in summer that called me outside before any other person in the house was awake to interrupt my own little plans.  There was probably a box of generic Cheerios propped on the table with the angular plastic bowls that had started life as margarine containers for the taking, but I was after something else.  When you grow up in the country in Pennsylvania, inside your house might stay the same year after year with the sun fading an ever-present throw pillow with the shadow of the cross - formed from the window munions, but outside was new every morning and needed daily exploration.  For example, You might go to sleep to impossible blackness that settled down after an orange sunset at 4 in the afternoon and wake up to every last branch and blade bent under the weight of snow as thick as butter cream frosting on a wedding cake.

I lived every day of my first 18 years on three acres of land facing a wooded hill that wanted to be an Appalachian mountain and couldn’t quite manage it.  First a blue and white striped mobile home and then a proud and cozy split level house that smelled like new wood faced that hill like the seats of an amphitheater.  Where the stage should be in the theater, instead there was a pond, draped on either side with apple trees that did what proper apple trees should do, blossoming out in the spring and producing green apples in the fall.  Every morning, the show would start with a light check, first pale gray, then salmon pink and finally the lemon yellow beams of sunlight.  Depending on the time of year, the sun itself might be reflected in the pond, and at night when the all the conditions were right, the moon did the same thing.  Most impressive were the Hunters Moons of October that rose eerily orange creating creepy silhouettes of the birch tree branches in the front yard just like a picture in one of my few picture books.  This was my whole world. 

On this morning, I slipped out in my bare feet, padding across the back porch constructed before the days of treated lumber, and therefore painted brick red to contain the slivers.  Down the four steps to the wet grass, to the left, a narrow creek cut the back yard in irregular pieces.  I avoided the wide, flat footbridge that spanned it, always conscious of how well the garter snakes liked to sun themselves. I was then –and still am- terrified of snakes.  Imagining stepping on one in my bare feet kept me awake at nights making my teeth chatter with fear.  Instead, I turned to the right, being careful not to slip on the heavy dew down the slight hill that hugged the side of the house. In winter it made the perfect sledding spot. If you plotted it just right, you could make it half way down the driveway from the rise, bread bags in your boots and hands screaming wet and red inside your wet yarny mittens. 

But it was summer. So it wasn’t snow calling me outside, but instead, the garden at the side of the yard. This was the lower, second garden.  A solid acre over the snake footbridge behind me was garden too: First a row a gladiolas, then rows of green, yellow and kidney beans. A half row of Swiss chard met a half row of creepy tumorous brussell sprouts and then a vast array of tomatoes, followed by at least six rows of corn with squash and pumpkins as the headlines. At the top of that garden was our tree house, more accurately -a cabin with built in bunk beds and screens on the windows. My mother sewed curtains for the windows just to make things pretty.  On top of the tree house rested a huge wooden beam taken from a torn-down railroad station that held three swings made with good nylon rope from Dad’s farm and garden store and flat wooden seats.  I would swing for hours, often alone, but sometimes in contests with my brother and sister to see who could jump the furthest from the highest point in the swing’s arc.

The lower garden, though, was for potatoes, zucchini, radishes, peas, lettuces and more tomatoes. It takes a lot of tomatoes to make the 100 quarts of tomato juice that would feed a hungry family of six all winter long. 

And also…..strawberries.  Everything else my parents plopped into the black dirt seemed to grow like a beanstalk, but that patch of strawberries simply could not be relied upon.  They might grow or they might not.  And never with the abundance required to make enough jam for the thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we must have consumed.  Mom and Dad finally gave up and put in a patch of more predictable red raspberries that yielded more than enough for jam and for garnishing our cereal on a regular basis.  On that morning, though, I found the berries I was hoping for.  I ate one, and then gathered a handful for a project I had in mind.  I hesitated a bit before heading to the garage.  I was wondering if I had enough.  Perhaps I should check the field?  Beyond the side garden, a grassy hay field curved up and around the corner where my aunt and uncle had a low, green shingled ranch house where they raised six cousins, four older than me and two younger. 

Between us, in that hayfield, growing low to the ground, a patch of wild strawberries flourished.  They were tiny and tart and better tasting than any tame strawberry ever could be.  To reach the patch, I would have to wade waste deep through goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, wild daisies and milkweed. My mother was never in short supply of bouquets because I often picked handfuls to grace her red and white checked table.  The risk in running the field either way was one of two things: if you ran from the field toward the house, you had to mind the clothesline, which sagged exactly at the line of my chin, and during a particularly good game of hide and go seek in the dark one night, I had hit that line running full tilt and landed flat on my back, gasping for the breath that had been knocked out of me, a line-shaped bruise forming at my jaw line.   The other very real danger in running the field was breaking the ribbon of an orb spider web with your chest and winning the gold medal of a three-inch spider around your neck. 

My little hands clutched the handful of berries in front of me like an offering and I made my way to the side door of the garage, pushing the sticky door open with my backside.  Inside the cool, dark space, I found the metal lid of a Miracle Whip jar, blue with white stars, and dumped my berries into it.  I reached for the soft rubber cord of my toy stove.  It was teal blue, circa 1960, freshly mined from my great grandparents house.  Great grandpa had died doing what he loved: bowling.  I remembered him as a softly smiling man with great drooping earlobes.  If I squinted, I could remember great grandma Mattie, who had died a few years before.  All I could make out was pearl trimmed cat-eye glasses and the blue green paisley of her cotton housedress, and maybe faint laughter. What I knew to be very real was the curiosity of a house they had filled with auction finds and oddities.  Their daughter, my Grandma and Grandpa were going to move into the house and modernize it and they said we could take anything we wanted out of it. We filled mom’s blue Chevrolet station wagon to the brim with old school readers, and a pith helmet, cotton tablecloths and McCoy pottery vases and aurora borealis rhinestone jewelry and pink curlers and stacks of fancy and not so fancy dishes and rickety rocking chairs and a toy princess phone and any other oddity that we found poking through rooms we never got to see because they were the mysterious “upstairs” where polite little children never got to see under ordinary circumstances.  My prize treasure Suzy Homemaker stove had a real electric cord and had a 60-watt light bulb inside that lit up when I plugged the cord into the socket above dad’s workbench.  I slipped my pan of berries into the oven and closed the door, my little heart filled with expectation that my berries, stems and all, would come out just like Mom’s jam.

I kicked the wet grass clippings off my feet, and felt the itchy half-second when your bare skin seems to absorb the dew and you are suddenly sparkly clean.  Just then, my mother softly appeared from behind the interior basement door.  “What are you doing?” she wondered aloud, taking in the scene of six year old girl, brown curls teased out of long braided pigtails, bare feet, pajama clad, with light glowing out of a toy stove that never knew a safety standard. “Oh!  That won’t work!” the corners of her mouth twisting up and down at the same time, while she unplugged my stove.

I couldn’t imagine why my plan wouldn’t work.  I had berries and I had a stove.  Just like Mom. What other wonders would I need to be all grown up? 

It seems to me that for every tiny thing in my small world that opened me up to wonder, a place was made for wonder to remain in me.  Like the tiny seeds of a strawberry, they grew to make space for the huge wonders of the world.... Niagara Falls, falling in love, the New York City skyline, and my own babies.  The last of those four surprises pushes open my door at ungodly early hours of the morning with a clear agenda.  She has gray eyes and three freckles on each cheek that appeared over night when I wasn’t looking.  She wears a 12 year old shirt, soft and ragged that I prophetically saved from her oldest sister. It reads, “It’s great to be an American girl.”  Her miraculously tiny human underwear are miraculously dry through the whole night.  And before I can form a clear thought beyond “coffee,” she announces her intention to go right on outside to our own suburban garden.

 “I check the berries, Mom.” 

Friday, June 23, 2017

"This is Robb, How Can I Help You?"

My husband always answers the phone the same way:
"This is Robb. How can I help you?"

It's pretty smart, really.   He can quickly sort out if they are calling Robb the pastor of Vintage Fellowship, Robb the sales executive for Three Tier Logic or Robb the candidate for United States Congress.

And, he is actually listening for how he can help you.

I'm sure that people who know us are wondering about this new thing, this running for Congress.
How does he have time for this? Isn't he mixing religion and politics?  Is he even qualified to do this? Can regular people just run for Congress?  Don't you have to have a lot of money or be famous or something to do this?

I can answer all of those questions.  Because I'm the one who got this thing started.

Just a few short months ago, I heard a podcast entitled "Zack Exley Has a Plan to Save U.S." For the first time in a very long time, I felt hope about politics in America.  Zack spoke in a way that made sense to me because he was describing something in the realm of politics that I have observed in the realm of religion for the last 12 years.   He spoke to a longing for something else.  Twelve years ago, Robb and I heard that longing in the church and we started Vintage Fellowship.  We have over a decade of seeing what is possible when people abandon peripheral negativity and focus on the minimalist version of their faith.  Like people who declutter their homes, they experience a freedom, a lightness, a fresh start.

I was tired of feeling like a victim of my government.  I handed Robb my phone and said, "You need to do this."

Zack Exley grew up liberal.  He got involved in politics, worked at high levels on the Howard Dean campaign, the John Kerry campaign, and was involved with labor unions.  Along the way, though, he met a girl.  She was a Christian.  And then Zack got really interested in Christianity.  And Jesus.  He worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign and wrote a book based on what he learned called "Rules for Revolutionaries."  And he started a group called Brand New Congress.

Robb Ryerse grew up conservative.  He got involved in politics when he was in high school and went to Teenage Republican School.  He marched at Pro-life rallies. He planned to study political science, get a job in Washington and become President of the United States.  At the end of his junior year of high school, he discovered he had enough credits to graduate early.  He had a "Senior Week" while his small Christian school scrambled to get him a cap and gown, and with no time to apply elsewhere,  he headed off to the Bible college where his parents had met and his two older sisters were attending. The plan was to spend the year knocking out a few general studies courses and get back to the plan of  studying political science the following year.  That year, our mentor Dr. Carter took Robb's class on a field trip to Washington D.C. where he required his class to interact with their representatives and meet with them in person.  Robb's Congressman offered him a job on the spot.  But by that time, God had intervened in the plan.  Robb had felt the call to ministry and became convinced that if he ignored it, all other work would be a step down.  He went on to take the Pastoral Studies course, finished a Master's degree in Seminary and spent the next 20 years in ministry.

Their paths would converge over the word "post."

We are post-denominational.
Brand New Congress is post-political party.

A time comes when the groups we use to define us no longer define us.  We are both/and. We are nuanced. We are non-dualistic. We are listening and leading at the same time.

For the last twelve years, we have led our church by giving people "a big back yard" to play in theologically.  We have welcomed doubt. We have allowed people to be on their own journeys.  We believe that with the freedom to explore their own faith, they will get stronger and deeper and healthier in their relationship to Jesus.  It seems to us that if the government could give people a big back yard to be in, they could be stronger, deeper and healthier as a community.  If they could be protected as individuals, freed up from life and death struggles for survival, and allowed to innovate without crushing regulations, maybe our country would be better off.

It is also curiously Providential that I completed my Ordination early this year.  In order to grow as a pastor, I need the chance to practice the craft of preaching and the opportunity to take leadership in the church.  It just made sense for me to step up and start doing this work at the same moment Robb felt compelled to give his attention to the leadership vacuum in our government.

The way Brand New Congress works is like this:  It is a national organization, running local campaigns from the national level.  There is a group of paid staff and volunteers working on the nitty-gritty of the campaign details, like administration, fundraising, advertising, and social media. People nominate candidates who they already respect for their leadership in regular life and Brand New Congress interviews and trains and supports those candidates.  They keep their regular jobs and campaign during nights and weekends.

Robb's campaign has already gotten some national attention.  Every week, he has had press coverage, interviews, and requests for more interviews, both here locally and also in other markets all over the country. I scrambled to get a haircut because a documentary film crew is coming this weekend. That's because he's the first Republican candidate being offered by Brand New Congress.  He's the first example that people with different ideas about how the government should be run can put their heads together and choose a platform they agree on, not because a political party or corporations say they have to, but because it is good for the people of our country. He is challenging the accepted definition of Republican just like he challenged the accepted definition of Christian.  And instead of jumping through hoops to make the party happy, Brand New Congress representitives can get to work for the American people.

Zack Exley sat on my back porch last week and told us that Robb could be the start of a movement.  We laughed.  But we also remember vividly how we thought we were alone when we started Vintage Fellowship. And then we found out that we were in company with a movement happening all over the world, across all denominations and faith traditions.  Every day, we meet people who hear about what we are doing and say, "This is what I was looking for!"

I know I'm not the only one who has felt that the government... what ever that is....isn't for regular people anymore.  This is our chance.  You want to be represented by someone like you?  Someone who works a regular job? Someone who has had to navigate health insurance on his own?  Someone who wants businesses to succeed?  Someone who works two jobs?  Someone who isn't so rich they've never needed free or reduced lunch for their kids, WIC, or other public programs?  Someone who cares for all life, not just the unborn?   Someone who respects women?  Someone who has opened his mind about the lives of LGBTQ people?   Someone who cares deeply about the treatment of people of color?  Someone who mistrusts big government, big business, and big religion?   Someone likable?  Someone who is listening?

You've already witnessed in recent months that the vote of a very small number of Congressional members can change the outcome of a vote one way or another.  Literally, one or two people can actually affect the details of your life.

It seems to me that we need to change the way we pick a candidate.  We've got to stop asking, "Do  they agree with what I think?"  and start asking, "Do they know how to get along with people that think differently from them?"

I see so much hand-wringing and frustration on Facebook.  I also see a defeated, disengaged attitude of "that's just the way it is."  I am leaving both those camps behind and settling in for what can be done.

Here's what you can do.  If you are in are in the Arkansas 3rd District, vote for Robb in the primary election, regardless of your party affiliation.  You don't have to wait until November to get our current representative out of office.  If you want to vote for the Democratic candidate in the fall, go for it because he's not a bad guy, but at least challenge the sitting candidate in the primary election.   It is imperative to vote the primary in May of 2018.

If you are not in our district or the great state of Arkansas, volunteer.  Like all movements, Brand New Congress needs people to carry the movement forward.  Brand New Congress is a national strategy, and they are looking for qualified candidates from both parties all over the country.  Listen to the podcast. Nominate other people who are suited to the task.  Share about it on social media.  Talk to people you know.  Be involved.  Don't sit and complain when you can do something very tangible.

Donate to Robb's campaign.  This campaign is not about big corporate backing. This is real people giving medium and small amounts to the work.  Because of structural issues, Robb's campaign fund is walled off from the larger group, even though he is being backed by Brand New Congress.  Don't be discouraged by the total today.  It's a long road. If you want to be represented by real, regular people, then real, regular people have to donate.

Finally, share this post.  This is an example of time when the simple sharing of information with other people can help.  You can help people know that there is hope for our country. You can help them get involved. You can be part of a movement.  If you are frustrated and scared, if you are disappointed with your government and long for a time when people were true public servants, this is the time to step up with courage and ask for a better leader.  If you or someone you know has a platform to share information with a lot of people, ask them specifically to share this post and others like it.  I would especially love to see strong female leaders like Kristen Howerton, Shauna Niequest and Jen Hatmaker, who have openly mourned the political situation we find ourselves in to join us.  

This is Robb.  How can he help you?

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

On Swallowing Camels

*Trigger Warning -Sexual Assault, Abuse

A few minutes ago, I had to stop in the middle of a telephone survey because I started to cry.  The woman conducting the call paused with me, and asked gently, "Are you ok? Do you need to stop?"
I know I sounded less than ok when I squeaked,  "Please keep going."

I'm a weirdo who really likes taking surveys, so when I got a call around dinner time last night, I told them I wouldn't mind participating, but they would have to call me back when I was free.  And they did.  I didn't really know what the survey was about, but they did tell me up front that it would have some personal questions and I would probably want to be alone when I answered.

I was assured of the veracity of the agency taking the survey and the privacy of my answers, and while I won't say who it was, I will submit that they are an agency on the chopping block for funding from the current administration. And it's not Planned Parenthood.

After the usual questions plotting me in the grid of gender, age, income, racial background, the real nature of the survey came into focus.  The woman reminded me that I could stop participating at any time, or I could refuse to answer.

At the same moment Relevant's article on Why You Should Be A Christian Feminist appeared in my feed on Facebook.  But the survey questions yanked my attention away from the headline and brought me back to the questions:

"Have you ever been followed or made to feel threatened in a public place?"
"Have you ever been pressured by compliments or gifts that you did not want?"
"Have you ever been approached in a sexually threatening way that you did not want or encourage?"
"Have you ever been hit, choked, kicked, or shoved?"
"Have you ever been raped?"
"How old were you when someone touched you in a way you did not want or encourage?"

These were just a few of the questions.  There were many more.  They were surgically worded, but very explicit in content.

Most of the questions were not about me.  Most. I can talk about the clumsy and unwanted advances of teenage boys who should have had better training about consent without dissolving into tears.  I can talk about being ogled. I can talk about being followed. I can talk about being detained in conversations with men or boys I didn't want to talk to.  I can talk about men or boys talking to me in ways that were pushy, manipulative, vulgar, and too familiar.  I can talk about those things because they have happened so frequently to us, that all the other women I know would nod knowingly and move on to other topics.

It was while answering the brutal questions that were NOT about me that the sob rose in my throat. The tears surprised and embarrassed me. I hated that the survey-taker might be thinking I was crying over my own painful memories.  "No, not me." I answered, while I thought, "But someone I know....
Someone I love...
Someone I wanted to protect...
Someone I thought I was protecting...
A friend...
A friend's daughter...

With each new question, the list of women who had experienced violence and violation at the hand of a man grew longer and longer.

Today is International Women's Day and I had no particular plans to mark the day, but I was ready to support my friends who would find creative ways to observe the day, from the author I follow who's baby girl was born on this day 2 years ago and would no-doubt have some good words, to the academic who posted a picture of himself wearing red in support and solidarity.  

There's another story that has been clogging up my newsfeed this week.  Franklin Graham is calling ya'll to boycott the live action Beauty and the Beast movie because of a minor character being gay.  Wanting to think the best of my former tribe, I tried to assume it was only extremist who would be joining this call to action, but soon enough I saw guys I went to high school with sharing their dismay and chagrin about Disney's "gay agenda" being sneaked into their favorite entertainment dish like an unwanted vegetable.  At first it amused me, but as time passed, I began to grow angry as I foolishly "read the comments section."   Apparently, these people are convinced that a single exposure to the existence of a gay person in a two hour movie could be so detrimental to their offspring, that they need to avoid this movie and the whole Disney corporation while they are at it (Good luck with that, by the way. )  This exposure issue had me confused at the logic:  You are afraid that if you take your child to a two hour movie that shows a gay person...not a main character, but frankly one that is not even all that likable...your child will develop a sympathy for gay people?  Or rather, an acceptance of them and their "lifestyle"?

And yet, according to a recent poll I read, 74% of white evangelicals support the current President. How much exposure will your child have to this man in the coming four years?  What will they observe and come to accept because of his example?  How many teachable moments are you hoping will come about to talk with your kids about power, pride, lying, boasting, name-calling, injustice, being inhospitable and without mercy?  You have your dukes up to fight about a fictional character  but when will I see you speak up about the wrong of a very real and powerful leader of the free world?  

You strain at gnats and swallow a camel.

If you know me at all, you already know that I don't believe it is a sin to be gay.  And I'm not an fundamentalist evangelical any more.  Franklin Graham doesn't speak for me.  But those are my roots and I still care about the people from my past life.  I want to tell you plainly that you have a metaphorical booger in your nose and you look ridiculous and I'm embarrassed for you.   Because you have used your platform to call attention to a gnat instead of the camel.

Use your pulpits to say what I never heard from you while I was growing up: Get up and tell the men in the room that God is angry when a man hurts a woman,
when a husband hits his wife or she's not allowed to say no to sex with him,
when a teenage boy forces a girl to do something she hasn't given consent to.

Use your Facebook feed to decry abuse and manipulation that your churches have sheltered and allowed under the heading of "submission." Apologize for shaming victims and covering up pedophiles for "the sake of the gospel," and ask for forgiveness.  Clarify that the Bible you love and teach does not wink at the objectification of women or the dominion of them.   Preach that no matter what a woman says or does, she isn't "asking for it."  Support your President's politics (if you must) but clarify that you do not support his treatment of women. Speak up on behalf of over half your churches.  Imagine what it would be like if none of the women showed up at your church on Sunday and consider how well it would run.  You won't let a woman in your pulpit, so it is your job to speak up on her behalf. 

Here's the truth: I would leave my daughters alone in the room with any gay man I know,  but never with the current President.

The last question of the survey was this: Do you think people can be taught to help prevent sexual assault, intimate partner abuse, domestic violence and rape?

"I strongly agree. "

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