When Twitter Inspires a Story that You Haven’t Told in a Long While

It was only two days ago that #imnotgoingtochurchbecause was trending on Twitter. I read through the whole feed. Or, at least, I read through some of it. It was hard not to noticed the number of hurts that the church has caused and paid attention to the opposing 140 characters that beseeched the powers that be at Twitter do something about this trending topic.

I understand that discomfort all too well. It would be hard for it not to resonate. I am, after all, a pastor. This is what I do for a living. I make church happen and I want it to be great. I want it to be so great. I want it to be amazing because that’s what church was for me.

It got me thinking about that story. I got to thinking about how often I actually tell that story from what feels like long ago. And I don’t. I don’t talk about it. I really don’t which means those other stories, the really terrible stories of abuse and bad theology, loom that much larger. Those other stories are so big that I have somehow convinced myself that my story doesn’t matter.

It’s just a silly little story. It’s just something that happened. It’s not universal story. It’s not true for everyone but it is true for me. Even so, I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter as much as all of those other hurts and pains. In her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds, my friend Carol Howard Merritt freely admits that

Yes, Christianity is part of the problem, the cause of my suffering, anxiety and pain in life; but Christianity is also my cure, my solace, my center.

Carol grew up in one of those churches that said all of the wrong things. It was a theology that she challenged and ultimately one that she could not accept so she sidestepped into a more progressive faith where she could find solace and even centering. That story feels important because it’s so damn common. There are so many people hurt by the very human part of the church that doesn’t fully know who or what God is but insists upon God’s ways anyhow. There are lots of people with that story — including my friend Carol — but it’s not my story.

My story begins with some writing I was doing on that very same afternoon. I had plopped myself down and attempted to write about how my mom first ended up in church. She was raised a Christian. Her family walked to the neighborhood Episcopal church. I was astonished when I learned this because I had always thought my family — on both sides — was Presbyterian. Lo and behold, my mom’s family was not. They were these other kinds of Christians who mostly went to church because that’s what good people did. There were no deep roots to their faith; they went because it was the right thing to do. It didn’t change anything but their routine and so when my mom grew up, she had little interest in the church. It had never challenged her. It wasn’t inspiring and so she went looking for other inspirations.

What she found instead was cancer and it was that that plopped her back in a church pew. (That particular pew was a Presbyterian church, by the way.) I will never know the full extent of that transformation. I have no idea other than the fact that I’ve been told that she was an atheist. Before she was diagnosed with that disease, she was an atheist. Then, she believed.

She believed and she took us along with us. My dad stayed home but my brother and I were dragged along and plopped in that pew beside her. That was when I first started going to church but if that was my only story, I liekly wouldn’t still be attending. I still go to church because of what happened after I was first plopped in that pew.

What happened was she died. The cancer beat her but not without teaching me something about how to live. While she was sick, she kept going back to church. She kept sitting in that pew until it was impossible for her to get out of bed. When the cancer had almost destroyed her body, but not her spirit, the pastor came to her bedside. The members showed up with casseroles and somehow in all of that I learned that the church — the very people that gather together in God’s name — can listen to anything. They can put up with everything. They will listen, even when it hurts.

This is the story that scrolling through Twitter reminded me to tell. There are thousands upon thousands of stories of pain and hurt. There are stories of rejection and judgment and abuse. There are scars and wounds that are still trying to heal but those people that caused that pain did not sit in the pews of my childhood.

Seated beside me on those hard oak benches were other broken people. I was eight years old when I started to go to church by myself. Mom had died and I held on to this hope that there really was a group of people that could listen to my sorrow. They’d say more than she was in a better place. They’d do more than tell me to smile because they couldn’t quite stand my pain. They’d actually listen and that’s exactly what I found. In the church my childhood, which was not the same church that had been Mom’s sanctuary, there were people that “knew how to face death.”

That’s my favorite line from Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief. It’s a book about the Gospel of Thomas but it begins with a narrative of her own grief. She stands on the threshold of a church and observes, “this is a family that knows how to face death.” Indeed, that’s what I found in my home church. There were old people with greying hair and papery, leathery skin that peered down at me over their coffee cups and saucers. They would have knelt right down next to me if it were not for their bad knees, but it didn’t matter. They listened. They didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. They listened and it saved me.

There are plenty of terrible stories about the church. I’ve heard more than a few as a pastor. I’ve fumbled over my words in apology, but I still go to church because there is a family that knows how to face death and they will listen. Or, at least, they listened to me.

If your read my previous post There’s No Place Like Home or if you follow me on Facebook, you may know that I accepted a challenge to write an essay each week this year inspired by Vanessa Martir’s in her challenge #52essays2017. I’m mostly blogging over my Medium so be sure to follow along with the adventure over there.

Running Naked

It was only a few weeks ago that I found this beautiful passage from a colleague’s sermon on her blog Spacious Faith. That little passage from her sermon archives inspired what I preached that Sunday. I tend to be in the camp that thinks I have to write something new each time I preach on a particular passage. I’m setting myself up for that challenge this week — but that didn’t stop me from rereading a sermon from my archives.

I distinctly remember reading this story in Runner’s World when a friend posted it on Facebook a few years ago which I translated directly into the story of Bartimaeus in this week’s lectionary gospel reading from Mark 10:46-52. Here is a excerpt from that sermon.

Like the blind beggar, I want to throw off my cloak and run. Naked, even. Adam Cohen was just that brave when he toed up to the starting line for the Trail of Tears 5K in Oklahoma. He was tempted to wear a long t-shirt, but decided that if he was going to truly participate in this “clothing optional” race, he better just do it. You might say that he threw off his cloak and ran, but as his wife so keenly observed before the race began, “There’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.”

That’s what strikes me about this strange little detail where a beggar throws off his cloak. It’s more than being vulnerable or exposed or even finding the right words to express exactly what you believe. That cloak is probably the only thing he owns. It’s his only possession in the whole world. He’s probably not naked underneath that cloak. It’s probably just an outer garment, something that has been keeping him warm beside of the road. But, throwing off that cloak, he exposes something private. He reveals something about himself. After all, there’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.

It’s about admitting what you really need. It’s about that desire to see more clearly than you ever have before. It’s about throwing off that word that isn’t working for you anymore. No matter how much warmth and security it has given you in the past, it doesn’t fit who you’ve become. Maybe the word has changed. Maybe you have changed. Something has changed — so that now, you just want to run naked unadorned of the words that may have once defined you.

Subtle Stories of Racial Change for White Churches

I was so excited to see this in my Facebook newsfeed today. Erin Wathen offers some advice to congregations that aren’t all on the same page about marriage equality. This sage pastor recognizes that struggle in some congregations even if it’s not an issue in her own. She knows — as well as I do — that there are many churches where it’s hard to celebrate because not everyone in that body of Christ is on the same page. So, she offers some tips in Holy Edges: 10 Things to Preach if your Church is Divided on Gay Marriage. The good news that she offers are all scriptural. Build on these themes — as demonstrated in our holy word — and you’ll be able to nudge toward celebration for one and all.

But, after watching President Obama deliver such an eloquent eulogy for the Rev. Pinckney (yes, I only just watched it today), I’m thinking about how to preach about race and racism. In that eulogy, the President quoted the good reverend saying:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

What is true in the south is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.

That — that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world.

church-581069_1280I wish that that manual could come from scripture alone — but it seems that we need a bit more to illustrate this possibility of paving a way toward a better world. It has to be personal. What I didn’t find in my internet search today was a round-up of stories that might hint toward this possibility. Because there are congregations that don’t know their white privilege and really struggle to have a conversation about racism. My own denomination has been trying to have such a conversation since our President was elected. It’s happened in fits and spurts but we’re not quite there yet. There is still much more that needs to be done to break the cycle.

And we need stories to help us. We need stories of real people and real places that will inspire us along the way. As I prepare to preach on Sunday in one such congregation — a church that mourns what happened in Charleston but isn’t compelled into action — I’m trying to find stories that break the encourage people that don’t think that this is their issue to find something unexpected in the stories told in connection with the gospel. Here are but a few that I’ve found.

  • As the disciples go out two by two, I’m tempted to use this heartfelt, honest story from Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika who really struggles to hold the hand of a white woman at a Charleston vigil as an image of partnership. I fear it will not be heard as being more about his racism than anything else but the image is powerful for any one of us that wants to believe that we can we can create a better world.
  • To find the courage of the disciples going out into the world, we might need to hear a few inspiring words. Though it might not be too subtle for some, there are amazingly inspiring words in the Rev. Norvel Goff’s sermon just after the shooting. I will also admit that quoting another isn’t exactly telling a story. Still… so good.
  • Gwen Moten lost her best friend Denise in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. She shared her story on StoryCorps after the shooting in Charleston when the memories came rushing back. Though I haven’t found as many as I might like, I imagine that there are many more stories like this one that get to the truth that the racism that is burning across the south right now is not new. It’s been happening for a long, long time. Offering these stories makes the connection for those that might have marched at Selma or those that have been tempted to believe that we won that fight that many years ago.
  • One of my very favorite stories to address how long this injustice has permeated our nation is the story of Ruby Bridges. There is a children’s book that tells her story well but Ruby’s story is also beautifully told here. In this story, you can hear the tension of a prophet having to shake the dust of her hometown — though here that doesn’t mean that she leaves. It only means she prays.
  • The good people at TED have created a whole playlist of Talks to help you understand racism in America. As with so much of our media, many of these talks focus on talking points rather than the power of story but there is this one talk by James A. White Sr. He tells the story about trying to rent a home as a black man. He’s rejected before he can even create a home in this new place — even after serving in the military.
  • In This American Life‘s recent episode Birds & Bees, Act Two features Kadijah Means as interviewed by W. Kamau Bell. There’s a lot about this little segment that I’d like to use but I think I would choose the story where Kadijah steps up to the pulpit in her family’s church and asks for the mic. That’s when she announces to the whole church that black people and white people should not be together. She’s five years old. Please keep this in mind because there is a truth that children can speak in our churches that adults cannot.
  • The 2014 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading included this story about Dave Chappelle’s hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio of which there are several gems but it’s what Chappelle says about his dad — and this community — that seems to speak most vividly to the gospel’s hope that we go out two by two relying on each other.
  • Let’s not forget the power of popular culture and especially the little bit of good news we can find in Hollywood. There are recent two films in which individual scenes could be highlighted as images of a better world including Selma and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. (I know I said real people and real stories. These are more true than the last suggestion that I’m going to make.)
  • Finally, I would encourage dusting off your copy of The Help or The Secret Life of Bees or even The Color of Water to find a snapshot of confronting racism. Oprah has recommended these stories to every woman in America so that anything from these books will be incredibly safe to preach — and it just might hint toward that possibility of breaking the cycle of racism.

What stories have you found that might subtly hint toward the better world we dare to dream is coming soon?

The Stories Civilians Need to Hear

In the short story “War Stories” in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, there is this moment of internal thought that pauses the narrative. In the middle of two battle buddies trying to get laid by their stories, there is this moment of reflection.

The day before, when he’d asked me to come, I’d told him that if he gave this girl his story, it wouldn’t be his anymore. Like, if you take a photograph of someone, you’re stealing their soul, except this would be deeper than a picture. Your story is you.

There are so many things that I don’t want to hear about the war. There is so much of me that wants to believe that the things in Fallujah didn’t really happen. But, they did. Terrible things happened there and in Guantanamo and a whole bunch of other places that I don’t know by name. Terrible things are still happening. We are still at war — and somehow in the midst of this war, we’ve created what Klay calls this “weird pedestal that vets are on now.”

It’s a strange place for our vets and for those still serving. Because most of the time, they are not sure what to do with their stories. Even though their stories are who they are. They go that deep. Each of those stories defines who they are and what they are — but there is something about these stories that is incomplete. It doesn’t all come together in a neat little bow as another as it is described in the short story “Psychological Operations.” The narrator has just told that story that is him and then thinks:

…now that I’d told the story, I didn’t feel like I’d actually told her anything at all. I think she knew it, too, that the story hadn’t been enough, that something was missing and neither of us knew how to find it.

It’s a theme that repeats again and again throughout this collection of short stories as each narrator (and perhaps even Klay himself) tries to understand how these stories work. You can hear it again in the short story “Bodies”:

There are two ways to tell the story – funny or sad. Guys like it funny with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze on the horrors of war they can’t quite see. Either way, it’s the same story.

I have wanted to read this book since I first saw it appear on the new releases table at my local bookstore. My boyfriend was deployed. He was “safe” which was good — but I didn’t really know what he was doing all day. He couldn’t talk about it while he was there and even now that he’s home, I can see him hesitate. It’s partly because he wants to protect me and partly because we’re having this awesome meal and this lovely wine so why would I want to talk about such things. But, I do. I want to talk about these things. I want to understand this story because Hollywood has totally screwed up how I think about war.

I wanted to read this book because I want to understand why my beloved winces every time someone mentions PTSD and veterans in the same sentence. And I don’t understand it. Not yet. I’m still on the other side of the civilian-military divide but this book gave me stories that I needed to hear. As Klay shared with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, these aren’t war stories like people imagine them to be. These are stories about the guy who works in mortuary affairs and guy who serves as the chaplain — but more than their job while they are deployed — they are people.

And maybe we’ve forgotten that about our service members.

We’ve been so quick to put them on pedestals that we haven’t really allowed them to be people — people that have all kinds of thoughts and feelings and ideas. People who have stories that civilians need to hear so that we can remember that these are just ordinary people trying to make the world a better place in their own way. I loved Redeployment for this simple reminder.

Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide

bridge-600510_1280Just recently, Time Magazine published an article entitled Bridging the Civilian-Military Divide With Stories. I love stories thought as I eagerly clicked on the article. Because I want — more than anything — to figure out how to bridge this divide.

For so many years, I’ve been a pacifist. That fact hasn’t changed. I’m still a pacifist. But, I fell in love with a soldier. I fell in love with a man who sees the world differently than I do. In the end, we want the same thing. We want peace. We want to believe it’s possible — but we see it coming about differently. I want to engage in conversation. I want to believe that war isn’t necessary, that are other ways for peace to come.

I fell in love with a man that has seen and done things that he struggles to share with me. Perhaps because this bridge is so far and wide. He sees peace differently so that sometimes this bridge seems so long and wide.

So, eagerly clicked on this article in Time Magazine to find a new old friend, Thomas E. Ricks. Ricks has written many articles for Foreign Policy Magazine that I’ve eagerly shared. But, this article — this article in Time Magazine — only posed questions. Questions I want answers to but this article refused to answer. I was not satisfied. So, I sent Ricks an email.

Because the article concluded in such a way that it made me believe that he had more to say.  I was right. He wrote back almost immediately. I was shocked. I was shocked that he wrote back. I was shocked he would entertain such questions from silly preacher. I was even more shocked by his answer. His answer was simply to ask questions. Ask lots of questions because there is so much that we can’t possibly understand about the soldier’s experience. I came to an even deeper understanding of this after reading Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like To Go To War. There are things that I knew. Things that I even thought I understood but it wasn’t until reading this book and asking questions of my love that I came to understand what he was afraid of telling me. There are things that I thought I was supposed to say to honor my love’s dedication but I didn’t really get it. I was too far on the other side of the bridge.

It was one thing to read about the perspective of two theologians in Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War  but only a service member can really explain the breadth and depth of moral injury. Only a member of the military can really explain what it’s like. It took falling in love for me to learn this. It took getting over my own ideas about pacifism and military action and let’s be honest some really bad theology to understand that there is more to this story. As much as we want to talk about post-traumatic stress, it’s much, much more than a solider returning from war that lashes out and drinks excessively. It’s way more than American Sniper. But, apparently, looks something more like Restrepo. (It’s streaming on Netflix. You should watch it.) This was assigned to me by my love. If I was going to understand this, I needed to watch this film. Stupidly, I did so while he was still deployed. Bad move. It is incredibly hard to watch but you should see it if you are like me. If you want to figure out how to bridge this divide between the civilian world and the military world, it requires becoming uncomfortable enough to watch something so brutal. Because — as my soldier has told me — it’s one of the only films that shows how it really was. Or really is.

This is the hardest part for me. It’s the reality that these stories didn’t end with Vietnam, the Gulf War or even Iraq. These stories are ongoing. And for whatever reason, especially post-9/11, civilians aren’t pay attention. We can’t grasp these stories. We haven’t even listened. I’m certainly at fault. I never thought it was my fight. I just wanted peace — but love is teaching me that peace comes from every side of the story. It doesn’t come from insisting that military spending be decreased or demanding that our troops be sent home. Some of that peace has to come from crossing that divide by uncomfortably asking questions you’re not sure if you really want to hear the answer. Some of it has to come from understanding what it’s like to serve a member of the military right now.

The best way to do this — according to both my love and Ricks — is to watch and to read. I now have a long list of books and movies to work my way through as I try to cross this divide toward peace.