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Monday, 23 November 2015

Goodbye to an Ismaili Muslim friend

Last night I attended a silent prayer vigil in San Antonio. We walked around in a large circle, holding candles and grieving for the violence and hatred that has torn apart lives in recent days in faraway places. There were rabbis and priests, imams, college students, children and old folks who tired after a few minutes of walking. One man who joined the vigil midway through was Bob Jaffer, a man who has served on the board of the interfaith education center at my church. An Ismaili Muslim, an  immigrant, an entrepreneur, a big supporter of the Aga Khan foundation which does development work with people in poverty all around the world,  Bob asked how everything was going at my church. He told me a story about armed Baptists who showed up at a friend's mosque in Irving Texas the day before, frightening members of the mosque. We hugged, and since we were really supposed to be walking in silence, I returned to quiet and Bob (always the extrovert) found a Jewish person he knew and started up another conversation with a big smile. I received an email today that Bob died this morning. Heart attack maybe? I don't know. But I know the US needs more, not fewer, people like Bob. We protect America's values by receiving with gratitude the gifts and energy and friendship he brought us.

Friday, 20 June 2014

What I will say if the PCUSA chooses to divest

In a few hours our General Assembly will decide whether or not to divest from 3 American companies whose products are being used for nonpeaceful activities of the Israeli military in the Occupied Territories. There is likely to be more debate and more tension in the room than during our discussions of same gender marriage.

Coming into the assembly hall this morning we were flanked by grey t-shirted men whose shirts proclaimed that divestment would "leave them out."

I am very nervous about this conversation and the "fallout" after the decision.

Yet I am moved to support divestment and to do my level best to explain this decision with clarity and compassion to those willing to listen.

My first call Monday morning will be to the staff of the local synagogue with whom we have a longstanding and deep relationship. My hope is that the rabbis will welcome a conversation. My hopes for that conversation will be to...........

1. Listen to the understanding of my colleagues and clarify that our decision to divest is one of getting our own financial house in order as an expression of our hope that the occupation will end and determined efforts to work toward a two state solution will begin again.

2. Report on the positive investment of the Presbyterian Foundation in alternative energy, fish farming and microlending, which are serving to bring economic development to an area which will hopefully, one day, be part of a sovereign state of Palestine. I will remind my colleagues that our investments in Israel continue as a viable part of our denomination's portfolio.  I will ask if my colleagues would be interested in joining together in a project of this nature as an expression of hope for the Palestinian people.

3. Ask the synagogue friends to help me and my congregation become more aware of Jewish suffering in various places in the world, that we may stay vigilant in our efforts to address anti-Semitism everywhere, including in the depths of our own hearts.

4. invite members of the synagogue, Christians and Muslims (including Palestinan Christians and Muslims) to read together the book "Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy for Healing and Transforming the Middle East" by Rabbi Michael Lerner as a small group.

I pledge my willingness to have these kinds of conversations with anyone who desires them.

I have decided what I feel I can say to my Jewish friends and colleagues if we pass divestment. I am not sure yet of what I will say to the Palestinians I know and to our dedicated Mission coworkers who work daily in the West Bank and Jerusalem and experience the despair and hopelessness of the Palestinian people who wonder where the world's passion is for peace.



Monday, 2 June 2014

Do Talk to Strangers

This post is part 6 of a series of responses to questions posed to candidates for moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

Q: In our interactions with people of other religions and faith traditions, as Presbyterians we seek respectful dialogical relationships and authentic witness. How do you understand the relationship between witness and dialogue with people of other religions and faith traditions?
A: I have invested a lot of time and energy in interfaith work. I consider dialogue a spiritual practice. It is a patient speaking of truth as I know it, and a humble listening for wisdom from others.

The church I serve, University Presbyterian Church,  launched an adult interfaith education center 13 years ago, with important leadership from the pastor at the time, Lib McGregor Simmons.  Named the “SoL” (Source of Light) Center, we offer short courses such as “the Global Refugee Crisis,”  “Abraham in Judaism, Islam and Christianity,” and “The Spiritual Practice of Forgiveness.”

A course I had the opportunity to design was “Who Speaks for Islam?” drawing on the title of a book by the same name.

During the class, I interviewed women from Iran and Pakistan, and men from Turkey, Jamaica, Iraq and the US. I asked them about their jobs, their families and their practices of faith. During this course none of us who were Christian spoke about our faith, yet this was the beginning of dialogue. Dialogue creates a space of honor and hospitality for the “other” and lets him/her tell their story on their own terms. By offering space to people from numerous places and experiences, we also communicated something I feel is very important about dialogue: do not set up a situation where one person represents an entire tradition.

 One of the most powerful moments of this interview process was when I asked the Turkish man, “what would you like the group to know that I haven’t asked?” he responded,  “Thank you for not asking me about terrorism. Thank you for asking me about my life and what I care about.”  

Dialogue is our witness to Jesus Christ, as we honestly share our stories with one another. Dialogue recognizes that we all have something to learn from others, and that God’s wisdom is not confined to the lips and hearts of those who share our particular faith. Dialogue can inspire and transform. We leave the results of these encounters to God.

Monday, 26 May 2014

6 Practices to sustain a pastor's spirit

I have been wondering lately how I have made it through 22 years of full time pastoral ministry with my love for ministry still intact. So many who go into pastoral ministry only make it a short time. Pastors can feel ineffective, unappreciated and can often experience ministry as an adversarial relationship with a congregation.

For what they are worth, here are 6 things that I can identify as having sustained me in this work I continue to love.

1. Get a life! That is, a spiritual life.  Just  because we spend our days talking ABOUT faith or God or the Way of Jesus doesn't mean we actually live by faith, connect to God or follow the way of Jesus. As pastors, people often give us more credit than we deserve for being spiritual people. Being a pastor is an endurance sport. We need a life steeped in spiritual practices to make it very far.

2. When you look at the congregation, see the Body of Christ.  If you find you don't see the Body of Christ, beware. Get new lenses. Go on retreat. Talk with someone who loves pastoral ministry. When we slip into cynicism in our relationship with a congregation, we become like nagging parents or snobbish neighbors, giving off the "vibe" that if people would just do it our way, they could become what they clearly are not now. If you believe the Body of Christ was there before you arrives, you will be surprised by the gifts of the spirit that your joy will evoke.

3. Recognize when people see you, their history with God, Jesus and the church flashes before their eyes. When  you walk into a hospital room or meet a disgruntled church member you are not just you. You, for good and ill, remind them of their love or hate for God, their embrace or rejection by a church, their shame or joy in how they have lived their life. This is a gift to you --an opening for ministry. But it is easy to mistake for a reaction to you personally.

4. Preach to yourself. What do you need to hear from a particular text? How does it challenge and embarrass you? How does it rearrange your thinking or dash your hopes? Preaching is not so much deciding what "they need to hear (meaning I'm really off the hook)," but what do we need to hear together?

5. Practice curiosity. Curiosity is a marvelous antidote to defensiveness. When someone seems unhappy with you, the church, the session's decision, the changes in worship, go deeper. Find out what's worrying them, what gives them joy, what life in community means to them.  Explanations and justifications can leave the conversation cold and unsatisfying for everyone.

6. Ask for help.  We spend our days trying to get communities of faith to support each other and reach out for help. Then we put ourselves in some kind of special category as people who should know how to carry out the tasks of ministry alone. There is help everywhere. I have called seminary professors to help me with sermons, seasoned pastors to help me plan session agendas, psychologists to help me address issues of addiction, nuns to help me create a spirituality among church leadership.  I have also learned to deeply trust the wisdom within the congregation, to tell the leaders honestly about struggles in ministry, to gather a trusted team to deal with serious personnel issues, and to invite presbytery assistance in times of conflict. People want to help you succeed and appreciate the opportunity to offer wisdom and insight, to be treated as members of the "priesthood of all believers."

Friday, 23 May 2014

Lord, listen to your children..........

This post is part 5 of a series of responses to questions posed to candidates for moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

How does your church community make room for people to share their stories of faith?  How can we listen to the stories of people who are not in the church? 

When I think about how community is built and faith strengthened, I think primarily of personal and often vulnerable conversations in which people reveal their deepest questions and most profound experiences of God. Where do these occur at University Church, San Antonio? Here are a few places…
* The Board of Deacons:  Our current Deacon moderator decided to ask one deacon at each monthly meeting to share his/her personal faith story. This idea irritated the “business as usual” crowd, yet this practice has enriched each meeting and strengthened the whole faith community.

* Newcomer retreats: Newcomers share time with current church officers and other members. At a point during the   retreat we gather in groups of 3 to share conversations about the faith journey “maps” prepared during a time of silence. Stories of addiction and abuse emerge as do testimonies of God’s healing grace.

* Officer training: each church officer is asked to prepare and present a statement of faith, which are shared in small group settings. Many are written in a form of deeply personal testimony to the presence of God in a person’s life. Several have been asked to share these statements in worship.

* Financial Stewardship season: each fall, when UPC engages in our campaign to encourage members and others to make financial pledges to the ministry of the congregation, we  invite individuals to present a testimony to the congregation. Surprisingly, a presentation on “Why I give to UPC” turns out, almost always, to be a story of faith, touching on the blessings and wounds of a person’s life.

* The Way of the Child: this contemplative Sunday School  curriculum, which we use at UPC for preschool and elementary school children, invites the kind of interaction  between children and the scriptural texts that results in the children sharing extraordinary stories of connection with their own lives.

Listening to stories outside the church…
A grieving parent with no church home calls to ask if we would consider having a funeral for their child, who has just died. Two other churches have said no because they are not members. What a sad commentary, that we do not have the time or inclination to respond to a family in their deepest time of need. What more significant outreach could there be?

Offering to hold memorial services for families in the community with no church connection has become a strong ministry at UPC. The church staff and the deacons willingly offer support to nonmembers who turn to the church at this time. When these families gather in my study to tell me about the person who has died, faith stories emerge. Faith questions bubble up, and estrangements from faith communities are shared. There is often a beginning to some crucial healing in these holy moments.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Challenges of Being Church in the 21st century

This post is part of a series on questions for candidates for moderator for the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

What are some of the exciting possibilities facing the 21st
Century church? 
What are the challenges that face the church in this century?

Following Jesus offers exciting possibilities and monumental
challenges in any age. In our time, we probably will not succeed in inventing new ways to be Christian, or brand new ways to be church. We will make the same mistakes and discover in doing so the extraordinary grace of God. We are likely to lead and serve and hope and change and retrench with the same vigor that the church in any era has done. We will meet with fluctuating amounts of acceptance and hostility from culture, family and neighbor. 

Therefore, our first call is to humility, and a frequent backward glance. We are not looking back to the “good ol’ days,” but to the threads of courageous living, exuberant worship, and deep love for God’s world that can be found in the past and present of the church’s life. 
I will name 3 of many challenges the church has always and still does face, and suggest the possibilities that could emerge from facing them with hope and energy. 

Challenge 1: 
Our relationship as Christians with political structures. In other words, to whom are we loyal as followers of Jesus? 
To face this challenge:  
Deepen our spiritual practices and our commitment to being one body so the character of our life as a church surprises and intrigues those around us. But this is not enough. We also have to demonstrate in word AND deed that we are willing to stand with people who are being harmed by the way things are arranged. In other words, change ourselves, then change the world. 

Challenge 2: 
Is that person my brother/sister in Christ? Throughout history the question of who is my sister or brother in Christ has shaped theology, brought about new movements, and fueled warfare...”  The center of Christianity is now the global south, not western Europe. 
To face this challenge: 
Become students of the life and faith of our sisters and brothers in the two-thirds world. Learn their stories, share their struggles, explore their example, seek honest dialogue. Be willing to feel awkward and confused. Seek out “the other” in our own neighborhoods and trust the Spirit’s work to bring connection and new life. 

Challenge 3: Is the world for our use or are we for God’s use?  This challenge has gotten to a crisis point. We have grossly and shamefully abused the earth. 
To face this challenge:  
Make this question central to the church’s life. Our relationship with the earth is not a “special interest group” concern. Let scientists teach us in our churches, and public policy makers debate in our Sunday School rooms, and the gifts of creation always fill our worship. Our relationship with God’s creation defines us.


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

13 Ways to say Hope

This post is part of a series on questions for candidates for moderator for the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). I am standing for moderator of this assembly. 

If you missed them, you can see parts 1 and 2 below.  

I see hope expressed in the PC(USA) in many ways, people and places,
such as …

... a Presbyterian army chaplain deployed in Afghanistan who gathers with anyone who is willing, for worship and communion in a small chapel. She accompanies fearful, lonely, remorseful, courageous, and questioning soldiers of no faith or other faiths on their journeys as they face challenges and moral dilemmas most of us will never face

… a small group of women who have travelled with me every Thursday for over 4 years to share in Bible study and prayer with federal offenders in a local detention facility

… a recent conference in Tulcea, Romania, during which over eighty helping professionals learned about trauma-informed practices, concrete ways to help heal the broken lives of Roma Children, and the collaboration of PCUSA mission coworkers of Presbyterian Women that made it happen …

… speaking of Presbyterian Women, they have been in the vanguard of the Spirit’s movement in the church for 200 years. Their current initiatives are immigration and anti-racism. They value Bible study, fund creative and healing ministries all over the world, and met in small groups before it was “hip” to do so!

… recent seminary graduates, young, old, passionate about Jesus and savvy communicators, deep thinkers, willing to   sacrifice and experiment and live simply and reach out to everyone

… urban congregations that start community gardens and rural congregations that support Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services

Living Waters for the World and gracious separations that have truly been gracious

Presbyterians Today, which helps us celebrate creativity and strong leadership and bloggers who make sure we know the Body of Christ is SO much bigger than the PCUSA

… ruling elders and deacons who share the Lord’s Supper in homes of those who cannot attend weekly worship

… conversations in adult Sunday School classes about big issues: climate change, poverty, public education

… adults willing to engage youth, straight and gay, in conversations about sexual ethics

… the new Presbyterian Hymnal, specifically the new Gospel “Gloria,” and the old “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”

… those who present their children for baptism. This is perhaps the most daring and amazing expression of hope of all. 

Monday, 19 May 2014

My story of hope

Continuing my series leading up to GA 221... this time talking about hope. 
My most profound encounter with hope was after a car accident in 2003. Two beloved members of the congregation I was serving as pastor were killed, and I was seriously injured. From the moment I gained consciousness while pinned inside the car, I heard the voice of a woman who turned out to be a chaplain speaking to me through the broken back window, asking me if she could call my husband for me. An EMT  spoke kind words to me while he and others lifted me gently onto a gurney. I felt enfolded with care when my whole being could have been filled with fear.

The reality of the deaths of two vibrant women brought our community to its knees in grief. Yet the wounded body of Christ –the church– embodied a resurrection hope I had never experienced. The church did this as truly one body, bone and muscle and skin inextricably linked. Church members, staff and presbytery leaders planned two funerals, others cooked for my family and visited me in the hospital. Neighbors readied our home for my return in a wheelchair.

Some say hope “floats,” but I would say it flows and seeps and saturates. Hope defined the tear-filled testimony of a church member and childhood friend of one of the deceased women offered at the sentencing of the man who had caused the accident. It was a testimony that revealed pain but did not
demand revenge. Hope flowed into the neighborhood around the church into the home of a woman who wrote the church a letter surprised and grateful for the forgiveness that the congregation had demonstrated. Hope entered the journey of the mother of one of the women who had never entered the church before her daughter’s death and is now a deacon.

Across town, the man whose recklessness had caused the death of two women, was enfolded into another congregation, and was prayed over by the men in his church, who pledged to guide and mentor him as he began to grasp what this second chance might mean for him.
In this season of my life, I encountered the truth of our hope in Christ. I saw, and through my brothers and sisters in Christ, experienced a living message of hope: that nothing, absolutely nothing, can have the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is one story. There are countless others. I will gladly share them with you. 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

My "Big 3"

In the coming days leading up to General Assembly I'll be sharing some of my answers to questions that were posed to all three moderator candidates. Here are my priorities and values for the PCUSA stripped down to my "big three." If you agree with this vision, share it with others! Don't forget to visit my website and submit any questions you have. I'll try to answer your questions in future posts, as time allows. 

1-A commitment to spiritual practices … the practices that have characterized a vital life with God throughout the history of the church: prayer, worship, Sabbath-keeping, the deep reading of Scripture, generous sharing. Simple yet deep, tried and true yet fresh for each generation, neglected to our peril, in these practices we are drawn closer to God and into more resilient communion with one another.

2-A desire to build community among strangers … our encounters with the “other” often reveal much about us. Changing neighborhoods, expanding variations of faith traditions, shared sidewalks with people whose pockets do not contain enough for the bus ride home-- can we see these as invitations to new relationships and new discoveries, enriching to the church and to our lives of faith? Most of all, can we see in these encounters expressions of the Kingdom of God?

3-A willingness to be bold and bodily witnesses to gospel values. Are we as followers of Christ, seen and heard in the places where brokenness is experienced most profoundly? Do we maintain a silent pity for wounded humanity, when placing our bodies alongside struggling humans (or nonhumans for that matter) might make for life-giving change? Do the things others see and hear from us as we go about our Christian lives in the world prompt them to glorify God?