Who Can Speak

When I joined the Peace Corps, in the process of moving to Kenya one of the forms I had to sign was a statement declaring that only the Peace Corps Director could speak for the Peace Corps in the country where I was volunteering. I was a volunteer, the only personal connection many people had to the Peace Corps, and I lost track of the number of times I said, “for me, since I can’t speak for the Peace Corps.” I took it to heart. The statement was really about the news media and political officials, none of whom I had any contact with when I was serving as a volunteer, but I still feel the need to say that I was only speaking for myself. 

I also had to sign a form saying I would not proselytize while in service… since I wasn’t a missionary, and we were representatives of the United States Government, so, you know, no street corner preaching allowed. (Which is still a little funny to me, because while I was in service in Kenya—and I expect the numbers haven’t changed very much over the last 12 years—the country was 90% Christian.)

So instead of talking to my coworkers about faith… I talked to my fellow volunteers, 90% of whom were not Christian. Each of my forty fellow volunteers had a different reason for their dismissal of the church, most of them were seated in the harm that they received or the hate they heard come from a pulpit or a pew. I had a couple of close friends who said that I was the first person they had talked to that actually listened to them when we talked together about faith. It remains one of the best compliments I have ever received. 

Listening well, trying to understand, receiving words with grace, and being open to ways in which I could be contributing to harm has been my goal as I have continued into formal ministry since then. 

The Peace Corps declaration about my needing to be careful to never speak for the United States Organization I was serving with stuck out to me, and still sticks out, because it echoed the language of the church I was raised in, a phrase I learned when I was a teenager: the General Conference is the only group that speaks formally for the United Methodist Church. And they only meet every four years, so the United Methodist Church is not inclined to knee-jerk reactions and heat of the moment responses. 

I was raised in the United Methodist Church. And at least since I was twelve, I have considered myself to not be a member of a particular church, but the annual conference I resided in, and really, the global church. I deeply felt part of the global church, a church that reaches across oceans and crosses borders and opens doors and provides shelter to those in need of sanctuary. 

I love this church.

I returned to Kenya while I was in Divinity School as part of an internship with North Church Indianapolis and the Umoja project, a partnership between ten congregations in Indianapolis and ten congregations in the Chuliambo region of Kenya outside of Kisumu. I remember one meeting in particular where the directors representing the Kenya side and the Indianapolis side of the partnership were creating a Memorandum of Understanding. I remember being particularly impatient as I heard the same things said repeatedly by each of the members of the discussion group. I didn’t realize until we finished the meeting that we had accomplished far more than I realized, in part because the decisions were made by all the group, developing a consensus between the entirety of the group. 

It was a far cry from majority rules. 

~~~

This week, the United Methodist Church completed a special session of General Conference, called together to discuss one single topic: the consideration of ordination and marriage of LGBTQIA+ individuals. A narrow majority of the delegates voted to keep the language of the current Book of Discipline and increase judicial penalties for congregations and pastors who break the rules. (The Judicial Council will be meeting in April to determine the constitutionality of these decisions. Yeah, the United Methodist Church has a Constitution and makes decisions based on a democratic process.) This was the first time that General Conference had discussed the issue of the rights of our queer siblings to get married in the church since it became legal in the United States. 

~~~

Eight years ago, I became a pastor, and took my first appointment of my own in the United Methodist Church. For five years, I served under appointment, and until about three years ago, when I took extended family leave, and became a pastor without a congregation. I still preach, and have celebrated communion a handful of times, (I have sacramental authority at my husband’s church…) and we baptized both of our daughters into the United Methodist Church. 

I love this church. 

I’ve preached approximately five hundred times. Every single time I stand (or sit, when I was unable to walk) before the gathered congregation, the first and last word I want to say is that God loves the people who are before me. Those who are present have represented a vast diversity of opinions and political stances. And I still, every single time, regardless if that one person is listening simply to think of the best verbal jab to give at the handshake line, preach grace to the people who listen. 

I love this church. 

Every single person is created in the image of God. I love the image of God in them, and so I love them, even if I don’t really enjoy the verbal jabs and the antagonism and the judgement I have received from people I was sent to serve. 

My word from the pulpit is still love. It is still a declaration that each child of God is created in the image of a God whose love poured out so much that we were created so that God could love us. 

I love this church. 

My heart broke this week when my church said that the United Methodist Church would continue to create a dividing line, excluding some of the very children of God I am called to love. 

General conference doesn’t speak for me. Not in this case. 

When I celebrate communion, I always say: This is not my table, this is not this church’s table, this is not even the table of the United Methodist Church. This is God’s table, and all are welcome to come, taste, and see that the Lord is Good.

In my own words: I love you, as you are created, formed and molded in the image of God, and you are worth that love. And you will always have a place at the table I celebrate.

Scrub a Dub

Today Le Tour de France ended in a part of France in which I traveled when I visited my sister while she taught there. (Sis, you can keep going to cool places, and I’ll keep visiting you there.) It was cool to see parts of the country, the cobblestones I had walked on where now the competitors were racing. The thing about the stage today: it was raining. And so at the end of the stage, every single biker was covered in the mud kicked up from the road from their tyres and the tyres of all the men racing with them. The announcers said that they were showering or at least getting a “thorough toweling off” before they had any interviews.

I’ve not often been that dirty. I have a pretty clean job, where I do a lot of writing, and I might sweat, but it is only because I might be preaching outside or if the heat is turned higher than I find comfortable. On vacations, I take a shower after a day at the beach, but that’s to get salt and sand out of my hair. I don’t play sports very often in the rain, though I do enjoy a stroll in a summer downpour every so often.

I remember once, though, that I got pretty dirty.

While I was volunteering with Peace Corps in Kenya, a group of us wanted to go over the border to Uganda to white water raft the headwaters of the Nile. There is probably a flight that goes from Nairobi to Kampala and a quick cab or charter flight that would take at most an hour or two to get the journey done. But, being volunteers and with limited spending money (I almost said we were poor, but that would be lying) we all took the local mass transit available. That means we all took Matatus. A Matatu is a unique vehicle, designed for fifteen passengers, with the diesel engine block directly under the driver and front passengers. They are everywhere in Kenya, probably in most of Africa. We saw a couple of the same vehicle bodies when were in Tokyo, but they were not the same, they were way too clean and didn’t have nearly enough people in them. Remember how I said they were designed for fifteen passengers? Sometimes, especially in the western side of Kenya, the conductors can fit in an extra five, ten, or fifteen people in, as well as live chickens, goats, children who sit in laps, and any assorted collected luggage. It can get a little cramped.

Our group came together, and managed to fill most of a Matatu, but not all of it, there were locals riding with us. I managed to sit in the very back, alongside a window that I cracked open to get some good air circulating through. There is no air conditioning in Matatus. You learn to make the best of imperfect circumstances. I was sitting pretty for the final leg of our trip. Window seat, got a seat nearly to myself, friends around me, doing pretty good, actually.

When we got to the base camp of the rafting company, I gave myself more than a once-over. My arm, where the sleeve met the skin, looked like I’d gotten a farmers tan. Not too bad, just a bit red and dark. On closer inspection, I realized it was dirt. That’s right, the dust of the road had layered on thickly enough so that I thought I had a tan. It was time for a bath.

Mom's feet, after a normal day of walking around in the dust of my village.
Mom’s feet, after a normal day of walking around in the dust of my village.

I went on to take the most amazing shower of my life. Showers are not all that common in Kenya. I didn’t live with running water in my home and took bucket baths to get clean most of the time. The base camp had showers set up along the ridge looking out over the river, one wall made of forest and river in the distance. As I soaped up my hair I could see rivers of dirt streaming down my body. I don’t always rinse and repeat, but this time it was incredibly necessary. It felt so good to be clean.

I wonder when else that is the case. Do you have to get really dirty to appreciate getting clean? The contrast makes the positive so much stronger.

I struggle with thinking sin is the same way. And in some ways it might be. When a woman comes to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, the host at the table complains at her effusive display of gratefulness. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a man whose debts as big as a mountain being forgiven who is more thankful than a man with a mole’s hill worth of debt forgiven (Luke 7).

Paul asks: so should we sin more, to make the forgiveness that much sweeter? Absolutely not (Romans 6).

The thing about God’s grace: it is sweet regardless of the journey we have taken to receive it. Whether we have raced through the cobblestones of Northern France in the pouring rain, ridden in the back of a Matatu down a pot-holed dusty road, or done what seems to be nothing of consequence, God offers us grace to cleanse us of all that has hindered us.

I forget this. I forget that grace can come to me and those around me, whether we have a squeaky clean past or a hundred different skeletons in our closet. Shouldn’t we get a little dirtier just to make the cleansing that much better? Not necessarily. And in the same vein, it doesn’t matter how dirty you get, whatever past you think you have that is going to make God cringe. The waters of God’s grace shower down in a never ending fountain that cleanses us of everything. Every doubt, every fear, every anger, every moment of jealousy, every single thing. Now. We still live in this world, even as we are working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Grace is not a one time thing. We still need grace to work in us every day. Just like you need a regular shower, you need a regular encounter with God, with the grace and Spirit of God to stay in the right direction.

God is not done with you yet. God is waiting to cleanse you with grace again. And guess what? It feels so good to be clean.

More Than Lace Hearts

When I was growing up, we made all our Valentine’s Day cards by hand. The dining room table would be covered with pink, red, and white construction paper, lace doilies, crayons, glue, glitter, and markers. My sister and I would construct cards for our parents, our grandparents, and occasionally our cousins.

One year we were travelling on Valentine’s Day and mom got a bunch of tiny premade Valentines and hid them everywhere, under our pillows, in our seats, and on the windows of the van as we returned to continue our trip.

When I was in college, I made some Valentines by hand sewing hearts onto cards. I was able to use little plastic conversation hearts and other sparkles from a garland, and I had fun making them.

When I was in Peace Corps Kenya, I knew that I was going to be with a bunch of other volunteers on Valentine’s day, so I bought a few packages of cards to give out to my friends.

See, when I was in elementary school, I didn’t have a requirement to give Valentines to a collection of twenty to thirty classmates. The only classmate I had was my sister. I was home schooled, and so I didn’t have any other classmates. Perhaps that is why as an adult I have had more fun giving valentines out to others.

None of my valentines are romantic. I didn’t have any boyfriends when I was growing up, and the first valentine that I gave to my husband when we were first dating was a batch of heart-shaped sugar cookies. I don’t connect the hearts, chocolate, flowers and jewelry to this day. (He did take me out on a romantic date that first valentines.)

I know some folks who have anti-valentines days. I know some folks who will flat out ignore it altogether. Something has saved me from that bitterness. I had plenty of reasons to be bitter growing up: no one wanted to give me a valentine, there wasn’t any cute boy that snuck a valentine back to me, and I was far from being romanced on Valentines Day. But my joy with the holiday doesn’t come with what I get. I find my joy in what I can give to others. Especially on this day.

Not to be a martyr about it, but St. Valentine was a martyr for his faith, with little to no connection to romance. This really is a holiday created by the greeting card companies, and they manage to get a goodly part of our wallets. But even if the holiday is a construction, that doesn’t mean that I can’t use it for my own purposes.

Greeting card companies, I see your commercialization, and I raise you a healthy dose of good hearted generosity and friendship.

It’s what I hope to teach my children. We may not make all our cards by hand when they get into school, but we will learn that it is more about what we can give away, than what we can get from being the most popular kid in class. And I hope that we will find time to make a few of them by hand, because I want to pass on the joy of being creative and generous to my children. Maybe they will get some valentines in return, and discover a compassionate heart to befriend.

in the snow, on the porch, in my heart
K loves J

Digging a Well

When I was in Kenya, part of our group was helping to dig a well. Without a locally available intensive infrastructure, water comes from the ground. You hope that the water table is high enough to reach, but also deep enough that the water is relatively clean. Without the infrastructure, everything comes from the ground, and everything returns to it. Boiling water to drink becomes necessary.

To dig a well you pick a spot in the ground. And you begin to dig. The topsoil may be a little loose, but soon you need to pick at the hard-packed clay before you can shovel it out. Then, after you pass about waist deep, you need to be extra spry to get out of the hole you are digging. And throwing the dirt out of the hole is also difficult. A team becomes necessary, so you can fill a bucket with the soil so it can be lifted out, emptied, and returned. Once the hole passes your height, and especially double your height, you really want to make sure that someone will help you out when your turn is through.

It is incredibly difficult work. Oh, I forgot to mention, we did it all by hand. I had gloves to protect my hands, but most didn’t. And I wasn’t strong, but even the most built men in our group were far out-classed by the nationals. Long practice of hard labor makes it seem not as difficult.

The problem with digging a well this way is that you have to go until you hit water. You don’t really know when that will be. And then you hope that the water is good water. You hope that your survey of the surrounding area was good. You hope that someone has good instincts in your group.

The payoff, the water for bathing and cooking and laundry and drinking, it may be a long way off. The well may dry up if the rainy season fails. That long intensive work may end up with water that can only serve to irrigate the surrounding crops. That’s what happened with one of our groups. The deep well was not as refreshing as we had hoped.

If you are lucky, then the water will swell into the pit, and then a cover can be constructed so that a bucket can be lowered down and raised up, brimming with refreshing water that renews life. The well can serve the community, bringing water closer to home, so that water doesn’t require such a long walk as before.

There are deeper wells that can be dug. They do require machinery, and they are nearly guaranteed to produce water that is good to drink. But they are expensive. They can require more work and training to maintain the mechanism and equipment that draws the water to the surface.

A well, deep with refreshing water. It is a prize, a reward for hard labor. A well of deep water refreshes and cleanses the grit of the pit that was dug. The dust is washed away, and the water is good to drink.

Neighbors

I preached on the parable of the man on the road, and the Samaritan who cares for him this morning. The Gospel text is Luke 10:25-37.

When I was growing up, I was incredibly independent.

I could do it all by myself. Or at least, that’s what I wanted to be able to do. I could handle any conflict, any haircut, any style choice, any handwriting, anything, really, all by myself.

When I was ten. You name it, I had it DOWN.

Now, of course we know that was not true.

Spats with my sister always got me in bigger trouble than her, because she still, to this day, knows how to press my buttons the best. Haircuts might be a little skewed, slanted, or short, and so I might walk around with bangs that left me looking surprised for a month. My sense of style remains to be anomalous and quirky, and my handwriting is still illegible.

I had a sign over my bed growing up “get help” that was it. It was there to remind me that I didn’t have to do it all on my own. We celebrate independence as a virtue, but it can just as often get us into trouble.

Continue reading “Neighbors”