Friday, December 29, 2017

How to Have a New Year's Miracle

There are four other adults who claim credit for my daughter's conception. Four, that is, besides my husband and I, and besides the doctors and embryologists who ought to get credit. It was 2006, and after seven years of infertility, we were in for an amazing year, bright and strange by turns.  After seven years of infertility, we, along with the doctors, were ready to give up on finding a cause, and go for the cure--the big guns, in vitro fertilization.

I have never been an optimist. I had enough years of failure, and putting all that effort, and money, and injected hormones into the effort was painful. Of course I ping-ponged between terrified hope and dull despair. Luckily, we had friends to encourage us.

Sandra had one of her special talks with God, the kind where she says, God listens to her. Her husband David, on the other hand, tried for saying the magic word.

Janine took me to the big appointment, when it happened to fall on a day when Jim couldn't get away. She kept me company until the anesthesia took effect, and drove me home to nap afterward.

And Scott preached a sermon.

Yep, a sermon. It was New Year's Eve, as 2006 was just about to begin, and he was talking about resolutions. I remember him asking "What would you ask of God, if you really believed he would answer you?"

Sitting in the back pew of the Souderton, PA church, it struck me that I didn't believe he would answer. The reason I wasn't seeing a fertility doctor was that I was trying to protect my faith. If I didn't ask, I couldn't be disappointed.

 I was convicted. So we made an appointment and got started.

In May we finally had our procedure, and on a summer morning I sat in the same pew, and knew I was pregnant. I realized a miracle had happened in that pew--God had spoken to me. That ordinary space was holy, and I hadn't realized it.

In a couple of days, we're going to have another new year. It's the time when we all sober up from our holiday ferver and remember that calories and budgets exist. When we look back at all we didn't love about the year, and decide what we're going to do about it. Maybe we make new habits, and maybe we end up as members of a gym we don't visit past January.

The problem with resolutions is that they are only resolutions. They don't come with the power to fulfill themselves. Yes, I believe in the human spirit, but I haven't seen a lot of change in my life from a last-minute surge of conviction on New Year's Eve.

Except for that one. That one changed my life.

What if, this year, the miracles didn't come from us? What if having something great ahead wasn't resting on your shoulders? What might God have in mind for you? And most of all, what would you ask for, if you were certain he was listening, and would answer?

My goal today is not to go Pollyanna, (or Joel Osteen) on you, and make believe that God is a vending machine, and that faith is a lever to control your life. I know better, and I'm sure you do, too. God doesn't publish a Christmas Catalog from which we get to pick our new year. But I do believe there's more power, and more hope, than what we generate with our own gritted teeth.

New Year's Eve is a fragile space in the flow of the year. The daylight is scarce, and the world is cold, and the comfort and joy of Christmas are past. Our willpower is out of shape from spending and eating, and our strength is worn down from travel and short sleep. It's a place of weakness, just the right kind of place for miracles. It's a marvelous place to meet God.

So I wish you a happy new year. And I hope for you something better than your resolutions, better than you can make for yourself.  This year, I hope you'll think bigger than your own willpower, and ask for the will of God.

   For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
                                                                                      Jeremiah 29:11

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas Eve Test (mini-blog)

I've been thinking about family lately. It's kind of the thing to do in the Christmas season, plus we're having our first college-employee Christmas break, so we're actually back in Washington state, visiting our families.

I don't have the most closely knit family. My brothers and I don't call or write, even though I think they're awesome. It's not a lack of liking one another, it's just that life is all-consuming. And so Christmas, and Easter, and a couple of other gatherings during the year are the sum of our relationship with each other. It makes the holiday extremely important.

But some years it didn't happen. Some years, we lived all the way across the country. Money was tight, and we decided it was better to visit in the summer, when the outdoors was going to be more inviting. It wasn't a bad choice, it just made for a glum Christmas Eve.  We would fancy up for the church holiday programs, bake and plan and sing and celebrate. And then, for the day itself, we were alone. All of our local loved ones went home, and spent time with their real families.

Christmas Eve is a sorter of priorities. It's a reality check.  Like thousands of other pastoral families, we poured our energy and time into the church. We had relationships and meaning there, and people we loved.* But when the holiday comes, all the lesser relationships have to give way to the most important. Those Christmas Eves on our own were invaluable, because they showed me the lay of the land.

Here's what I learned--there is no work you can do, even work for the church, that will keep you company on Christmas Eve. That space is saved for relationships, and it's mostly family that makes the cut. It's the ultimate test for how you spend your time, who you give your best energies, where you look for your identity. We can waste a lot of our strength chasing things that fade to insignificance under the colored light of the Christmas tree.

I don't mean to suggest that there's only one way to be happy. I wouldn't want to imply that if you don't have good family relationships you're doomed to misery. Only that we need to value what we do have. Because life is busy.  All-consuming, in fact.  Our pace of life can keep us filling the days with what's immediate, instead of what's meaningful. 

The real meaning of Christmas is who loves you most. The good news is there is always a Father who loves you most, even if your family relationships are bunk, or you've failed the Christmas Eve test. Our relationships are his gifts, the tangible expression of his love to us. But with or without them, you are never alone.

So this Christmas, take some time to consider life, and meaning, and priorities. Take a break from the baking and wrapping, and sit a while in front of the lights. Experience the gift of being loved.

Merry Christmas!

*And if any of our much-loved church friends are reading this, please don't feel sad for me. I am glad that you had the right priorities.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How to Have an Adventist Christmas

Adventists have a sketchy relationship with the Advent. It might be in the name--we're all about that other Advent. We're not sure what to do with this one.

And it's getting more complicated these days. Now, as conservative Christians, we have to choose whether we're more offended that Christians are celebrating a pagan holiday, or that heathens are celebrating "our" Christian one. If we try hard enough, we might be able to stay mad over the Christmas trees in church, and complain about Starbucks cups, too. Maybe. 

Here are the possible approaches I've seen to Christmas:

1. We can't celebrate Christmas, because it's pagan.

When I was a teen, I saw a video made by some conservative Adventist media outlet about how Christmas is pagan. Trees, fires, wreaths--everything came from some pagan tradition that meant that, if you celebrate Christmas, you're really worshiping some barbarian deity.  And I have known Adventists that believed just that. At least one church had no Christmas events, and we hardly dared mention the holiday in December, and certainly not without some apology.

More moderate churches could have a tree in the lobby, just not in the sanctuary. And still others could have a tree, but no decorations on it but lights.

Of course, this is pretty glum way to go, and members are forced to resent either their Scrooge-like church, or the rest of the world for having fun without us.

2. The heathens can't celebrate Christmas, because it's Christian.

This next option, popular with evangelicals, is a little more fun. We get to celebrate Christmas, and still be offended and aggrieved. This time the enemy are those who are making the holiday secular, instead of those saying it's Christian. This is where we get to argue about disposable coffee cups, and put up nativity scenes in public spaces in order to assert our rights. We can frown at those who say "Happy Holidays," because we're afraid they might be including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, instead of just New Years'.

This one has an advantage of feeling relevant. After all, we're not complaining about long-dead pagans now. We're upset at things really happening right now, probably down the street. We have something to say to our own times.

The trouble with this one is that is comes with baggage. The need to keep up an assumption that we're all (or mostly) Christians in the public sphere is actually a child of politics, not of faith. And it keeps us at odds with our neighbors. The night on which the angels sang "Peace on earth, goodwill to men," makes an odd object for resentment and complaints.

3. We can celebrate Christmas, but only as heathens.

Believe it or not, that anti-Christmas video from my teens was making just this point. It's okay to give gifts and wear silly hats, just don't use it to worship God. It's okay as a secular holiday to spend with your family, As long as you don't worship God through pagan ceremonies, carry on.

The irony, of course, is that gives a free pass to materialism. The Santa narrative, centered on presents, is all cool. We can buy more stuff, eat extra junk food, and rock out at the office party. But we're not allowed to temper it all with the deeper, sweeter things, like the sacrifice of the incarnation, the light in the darkness, the comfort of God-with-us.

We can bow to the false gods of the modern world, as long as we don't bow to those of the ancient world. Yeah, I can't buy into that, either.

So I'm going to endorse another path, the one you're probably already taking.

4. We can make the most of it

We can quit worrying about the ancient pagans and the modern liberals, and even the historicity of the date,* and celebrate anyway. Celebrate what's really good--that God came into our world, and will not leave us to our own devices. We can enjoy love and family, and all the other gifts he gave us to keep the darkness at bay.

Make peace with the ghost of Christmas past. Yes, the pagans probably had a holiday around that time. Still, your members aren't going to come to the church Christmas party and be reminded of their pre-conversion days. No one will be tempted to skip off to the Beltane fires because of it.

Make peace with the ghost of Christmas present. We aren't witnessing to our neighbors when we insist they have Christmas only on our terms. Happy holidays arguments not only contradict the holiday spirit, they make us unhappy.

Make peace, and then make the most of it.

We have a gift here. There is a cultural obligation to spend time with our families, to give to those in need, and to think about things bigger than ourselves. Sitting right alongside the commercialism, there is a truly Christian culture in Christmas that reaches beyond the church. For once a year, all the world believes they ought to do good to others and mend their relationships. We can do something with that, if we don't get overstressed and exhausted from our gift shopping and our holiday schedule.

Spend some time contemplating the Christmas lights in the dark. Connect with a friend or family member who needs you. Give some of your Christmas budget to a bigger cause.** Share your family with someone who's lonely. Best of all, connect with someone who doesn't believe--it's the one time of the year you get to be loving just because, without drawing suspicion. Get under their skin now, so they want to spend more time with you later.

Christmas is a lot of things, depending on how you play the notes. It can be everything from commercialism, stress, and obligation, to peace, hope and love. This year, let's play up the peace, hope, and love. I dare say it's the Adventist thing to do.

*Yeah, yeah, Jesus is unlikely to have a December birth date. It's okay.

**We're looking into ADRA's Really Useful Gift Catalog

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Welcome Lights (mini-blog)

It's been a hard week for blogging. It's not for a lack of trying or a lack of time. It's because this week I'm in Pennsylvania for my friend's memorial. I've struggled all week to think of a message that was both honest with my sorrow, and true to the Christmas season.

Instead, all I have is a symbol.

I spent a lot of Christmas seasons here in PA. I have so many memories, from the year I wore a bathrobe to play Mary in NW PA, to the Lansdale Christmas Eve programs. But the thing I keep thinking of, the thing I've missed in all the years since we left, are the welcome lights.

It's not just a Christmas thing, I know, but it was always Christmas-y to me. My friends would keep a candle (electric, and with a timer) in each window on the front of the house. Welcome lights. I don't know how to explain my fascination with them--every eye of the house awake and watching for your arrival. The handful of single lights was more eloquent, more beautiful than any festive display I've ever seen.

This is Christmas. We fill it with lights and cheer--the cinnamon-scented glow of family gatherings, the rush of music and shopping and presents, a hundred dreams-coming-true holiday movies. But if we're honest, it's really just a small light in an ocean of night.

The world is still dark. It's evil, and there's pain enough out there to swallow us without a thought. But the funny thing about darkness is that it only takes a little light to hold it at bay. Light just one candle, and you have an anchor, a reference spot of solid things to rely on.

This is Christmas. Not that God banished the darkness, but that he came into it with us. Not that our pains are exorcised by the music of sleigh bells, but that we have hope to hold next to them. Until the Second Advent makes us free, we hold on to the First Advent, because it's the promise that it will.

It would be nice if the movies were true, and Christmas was about homecoming, and everything being all right again. We make what happiness we can, but the truth is that we are still out in the cold, still hoping to get home.

But God has set a light in the window, to call us, to guide us, to reassure us that we are wanted. A small thing--a baby, helpless and poor. Because that's all our God needs to overturn the darkness.

So if you're dealing with darkness this Christmas season--some sorrow, or anger, or loneliness, the welcome light is for you. Christmas doesn't give us cure-alls, it give us hope. We are not alone in the darkness, and home is real. Comfort. And joy.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Adventist Coffee Break

I've only played matchmaker once in my life, and when I did, I picked a big one. I gave my lifelong bff's phone number to a friend from seminary. It was really terrifying—said bff was dating someone else at the time. In apology, I tried to be as honest as I could with my “inside information” on him. He doesn't like onions, he wears too much black—oh, and I think he's a little too dependent on his coffee. 

They talked on the phone, and then Jim and I got to introduce them in person at Christmas. She decided to bring him a present—a coffee mug, and a jar of Roma coffee alternative.

It worked. Previous Boyfriend went the way of the dinosaur, and the next September I got to be matron of honor at a lovely beach wedding. The Roma, I understand, had a long life, surviving at least one move. I haven't tried it. But I always enjoy the coffee at their house.

Coffee showed up at our house along with our first child. It started at the hospital. It turns out that, while I had the advantage of contractions to keep me awake, poor Jim had to find some other means.

We'd had the baby home less than a week before my mom came to visit, and bought a coffee-maker to help her survive. We made no objection that she didn't pack it into her suitcase to take home later. We went from the adrenaline-high of the new baby to the bone-deep exhaustion of the not-so-new baby, and on into the sleepless grind of parenthood, and the coffee-maker came with us, and held our hands.

Two more kids later, we've moved on to bigger and better, and then smaller and better machines. We went through the Keurig stage, and out the other side, to a french press, and now a pour-over system. I'm a bit of an Other-Adventist hypocrite, I have to confess. I haven't managed to develop a coffee habit myself (mostly I drink it when visiting bff). But I am a good enabler. Frankly, I'm just happy to know I can always make Jim happy with a bag of whole beans for Christmas.

It's entertaining to drink coffee in the Adventist world. We have often packed our own supplies when going to overnight events for pastors. Sometimes there's coffee out with the breakfast service. Sometimes it's hiding in the back of the kitchen, for those who know where to look. Sometimes there is none, and we get to share out of our room.

Coffee is getting to be more mainstream in the church. I remember the first time we went to a church where one of the adult classes served coffee, guiltily, in a back room. Now I know many that serve it in the lobby.

A few years ago, a certain Adventist magazine ran an article on coffee, apparently trying to re-stigmatize it. It was a confession, written by an anonymous pastor telling his/her experience of having medically unusual withdrawal symptoms when s/he quit drinking it. The anonymity was more telling than the article's content--the intention* was evidently to tell us that coffee drinking really was something of which we ought to be ashamed, and hide back in the back room again.

I don't think it's going back. In fact, I think it's time to give up on debating coffee. As a church, it isn't worth our time anymore.

Medical research won't help us here. I know I've heard good and bad research, although only the bad gets shared around Adventist circles. I won't deny it's real, but I have to suspect it's subjective. Sadly, having a medical study is kind of like having a Red Book quote—it comes with a context (almost always to answer a specific question), it isn't the whole story, and it usually comes with interpretation supplied. It doesn't really end the discussion. 

It's a tough to live in a world with so much information (or to read from a prophet who has such a large body of work, from such a variety of situations**). It means, like it or not, we're going to have to use our own reason, make our own choices. It means that authority isn't as simple a concept as we'd like it to be.

It's hard, but we're going to have to navigate that reality somehow. Otherwise we find ourselves doing silly things. Things like pushing all manner of untested natural remedies because they're plants, so they must be safe, but then demonizing the one that does get studied. Or making life harder for one another.

At the end of the day, the reason we use coffee isn't really its chemical effects. For all the memes about how it prevents murder, the fact is much of the value is comfort, and ritual, and the social time it creates. The coffee break is about a lot more than caffeine. Coffee is just another tool for managing life. It works for many people. Not so well for others.

Yes, caffeine has an effect. Like any other self-medication, it has to be used thoughtfully. But experience says that's what most people do. We rest when we can, we caffeinate, we commiserate, we spend a little extra time together. And then we go back out and tackle life again.

Life is hard. The Christian life is complicated, and often muddled, and we can't afford to waste time making it harder for one other. Especially when we're following the path of a Savior who says it isn't what you put in your mouth that does the harm, but what comes out.***

My burden isn't for the coffee. It's for the church. We are all the church. Some of us reach for the coffee and some from the Roma (and some for an unsweetened herbal tea). But we are bound together by a faith that is much bigger than beverages. We worship a God who is greater than our differences, and we bear a message which is far too valuable to neglect so we can argue over food.

To my church I say, keep the faith. Drink the Roma, or drink the coffee, but don't drink the proverbial Kool Aid. Skip the judgement. Keep the faith.

*I'll keep the name of the magazine anonymous. You know, to protect the guilty and all . . .

**As a general principle. I am not trying to imply there is more than one opinion on coffee in her work, only that we're forced, by seeing the whole of what she wrote, to understand that inspiration is more complicated, and more contextual than we would like.

***Matthew 15:11

Friday, November 24, 2017

On Grief--or, What I'm Thankful For

I've always believed the human heart is not really equipped for grief. Why should we be? We were not created to experience death. Like the tiger's fangs, or the musk-ox's heavy coat, the way we manage loss is an adaptation to a world wounded by sin. It is unnatural. We weren't supposed to need these skills, and they aren't as good as we need anyhow.

Tonight I am grieving. Thanksgiving ended early with a phone call telling me I've lost a friend. She was young, and strong, and I don't know how to process the news. We like to snark about the early ending to Thanksgiving. We leave the table where we all talked about how happy we are for our blessings so we can (some of us, at least) hurry out to buy new stuff on sale. But I would rather have lost my thankful heart to commercialism this year, instead of to grief.

The friend who called with the news insisted I go to a private room before she would talk. And when she told me, I sat in the dark cradling the phone while we sobbed together. I'm not sure how we finally managed to hang up. My ten-year-old found me there, and hugged me and I cried into her hair until I had to find a tissue for my runny nose.  And then I cried into the tissue. Finally, I had to pull it together long enough to get my younger children bathed and put to bed. And all the while I wrestled with whether I could believe it. Was there any hope that it wasn't real?

So tonight here I am.  It's still Thanksgiving, and I finally know what I'm thankful for. Hours ago, we all sat around a table, and we went through the alphabet, taking turns naming something to be grateful for. I wracked my brain, and I came up with answers like "coffee" and "yellow." It was the luck of the alphabet, and I can't say I managed a lot of thankfulness for them.

I have now.

This year, I'm thankful to be an Adventist. I believe in a real resurrection. I believe in a God who's coming in person to break us out of this prison. The One with the answers is finally going to put the questions to rest. I believe in the Destination.

We have hope.

"Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. . . . For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. . . Therefore encourage one another with these words."
                                                                                                            I Thessalonians 4:13-18

We have hope. We say it. We sing about it. And it's so far off yet, that I can't touch it.

But I am an Adventist. We grieve, and we hope. And we sometimes say stupid things to one another because we're trying to hold the grief and the hope in the same hand, and they get garbled. Sometimes we think the promise should be enough, that it can somehow make us into creatures able to manage death.

Theology can't fix grief. Faith can't. The only real solution is the Advent. We can't really be comforted. But we will be rescued.

This blog is for my friends who are grieving. I know the hope doesn't change your loss. It doesn't make it less, or less important. But I hope you will hold them both in the same hand anyway. I don't have the answer, but there is an Answer. The Blessed Hope can't fix us, but it's the only link we have to the Blessed Reality that someday will.

We are not made to carry this burden. I don't know how we will. I'm not even sure how to get to sleep tonight. I will, of course. I'll grow the fangs, or the thick fur coat. Just like we all do. I can, because I have the one thing I need--I know it's not forever.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 17, 2017

For Thanksgiving: What I'm Not Grateful For

This week, for the first time ever, I'm posting a rerun. I have an excuse--I had surgery on Wednesday, and the pain meds have been dampening my sense of inspiration.  But I have been contemplating gratitude lately. 

This week's (repeated) blog topic is about something I'm not grateful for. Some of God's best gifts are this kind. They're like socks for Christmas. We don't love them, but we need them to our core.

As we get ready for the holidays, it's another opportunity to enjoy the gift of work. I hate work, especially of the "house" kind. But when I'm most honest, I know it's one of the things that keeps me a decent human being.

So to all of you out there stuck with the vacuum and the laundry, preparing for your company, or your travel, I'm offering this--a little Monty Python and a little philosophy.

"Blessed are the Cheesemakers" :

"What was that?"

"I think it was, 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'"

"What's so special about cheesemakers?"

"Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally.  It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

I don't recommend The Life of Brian.  I haven't watched the movie since I've become an intellectually responsible adult--too much making nonsense out of what is sacred to wade through it for the good jokes.  But I find myself wondering, as I vacuum the living room this morning, if it's true.  Are the cheesemakers blessed?

It's Wednesday, my work day.  It's the one day all the kids are out of the house, and I can do stuff without interruptions. Today it's just me and the dog and the laptop.  And yet, before I can start, I have a date with the vacuum, because I'm serving supper to the grandparent babysitters, and the house has to look sanitary enough to eat in.

Is cheesemaking blessed?  Is vacuuming honorable?  Can there be dignity, can there be value in the inescapable round of work which we call "menial?"  I really want to know this, because it seems like I can't escape it.

I want to build my identity around what I do on my laptop--the sermons or dramas I write, or the events I help create. I don't want it to come from my vacuum.  I want to be a peacemaker, on a world scale, or locally. But what I am most hours of the day is a cheesemaker.  And it gets worse because, while I do have hope that one day (when the children are all in school) I might make a living with my brain, I know it's no escape. The house will still need vacuumed, the dishes washed. No matter who else I become, I will always have to be a cheesemaker.

Where does human value, human dignity lie? I want so hard to be valued for the things I can produce with my brain, rather than what I can produce with my vacuum. But if I take the time to unwrap that want, it doesn't look so beautiful underneath.  Because as great a treasure as the human intellect is, it is the human heart which Jesus died to save.  Perhaps my value to a critical world lies in my power to comprehend or express ideas. But my value to God is in my character. Honesty compels me to admit that it's the vacuum, and not the laptop, that grows my character.

When mankind fell in Eden, and God began the work of redeeming us, the first weapon he placed in our hands was work. "Painful toil" is an accurate translation of the word God used both for tilling the ground and for bearing children. And even today it hurts, and we call it menial. Even with my trusty vacuum and my dishwasher, still, it hurts my pride, knowing I am capable of sublime* things, and yet  being kept busy folding laundry, or cleaning the litter box.

It is the vacuum, and not the laptop, which grows my character. Indeed, the very fact that I draw personal value from writing arguably disqualifies it from being an act of character.  The exercise of the mind is a good thing, it helps to make us human.  Theology is essential to the service of God.**  But it is unglamorous work that pushes and stretches, and grows me.

So I guess the irreverent British comedians have this one right.  Blessed are the cheesemakers. We are growing in grace.

So I offer my respect to all of you cheesemakers out there.  Because there's more to cheesemaking than cheese. What makes your work honorable, what gives it dignity, is you. You are the image and glory of God, and the work you do is not trivial because it makes you more like him. May God bless you!

*at least I think so

**This is very, very, very important.  Because I love theology, and philosophy, and storytelling, and I wouldn't ever want to appear to disparage them in any way.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Suffer the Little Children to Run in Church"

Hi, my name is Laura, and my kids run in church.

I used to have an excuse for it--we were the pastor's family. Everyone knows about pastor's kids, after all. My official stand was that I'd decided to embrace the stereotype, rather than fight it. But I don't have that excuse any more. 

I do make efforts, of course. I dress them in comfortable clothes, so we don't get unneeded grouchiness. I take them to Sabbath School, so they know church can be fun. We wait in the lobby as long as possible, to limit the time of confinement. And then we take a deep breath, and walk into the worship service, armed with snacks and books and toys, and prepared to hear very little of the sermon, keeping them quiet and happy.

But we're all tight as a bowstring by the time church ends. They are ready to be let loose. And because I don't want to come and go without speaking to anyone, I stop and talk. And they run.

We've moved churches twice since the twins were old enough to toddle. There's something nice about those first two weeks, when they're still in awe of their new surroundings. But by week 3, J has always decided he owns the place, before I have a chance to make relationships with people there which will give me the benefit of the doubt regarding my parenting. There's always someone ready to step in, and give my children the instruction I must be neglecting.

I have seen a lot of childless churches. And I've heard a lot of church members say how much they love children, and want to hear their footsteps and little voices in their halls. And who doesn't want those perfect doe eyes when they're extorting the children's offering?

But kids come with baggage.  Specifically, they come with noise, motion, and Cheerios to grind into the carpet.

I don't think it's any bad thing that when Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me," in scripture, the old English translation uses the word "suffer." No, I'm not trying to say that's the word Jesus meant--he wasn't speaking English. But it might be useful to meditate on why, in English, the idea of permitting something, and suffering through it, are related. Because there is a cost to having these kids with us. It's a negligible cost, if we love them. But here it is:

1. Kids are loud. They're often clueless about how loud they are. The only reliable way to keep children from being loud is to arrange them into a choir and set them up front.*

2. Kids are in motion. They run. They run everywhere.  And they usually move too fast to notice someone telling them to slow down. If you're going to have kids in a church, they will run--in the lobby, in the sanctuary, around the potluck tables. Please don't waste valuable time expecting something else.

3. Kids are messy. They drop their snack crackers, and don't finish their potluck food. They leave their Sabbath School crafts in the lobby, and pull the sharing books out of the give-away display. And since they're loud, and in motion, their parents might not notice the messes as they try to keep up.

Parents might make noble efforts (or you might think their efforts aren't noble enough), but they can't change the fundamental nature of childhood.  And they shouldn't. Because it's not moms and dads who made their kids this way--God did. I can't vouch for what he was thinking, making my kids in the form of perpetual-motion machines.  But I know I don't have power to recreate them--just to nudge them along in the growing up process that's going to take (let's face it) a lot of years to achieve. 

So if you want children in your church, the ugly truth is that you'll have to suffer.  "Suffer the little children to come to me . . ."

Lucky thing, there are good reasons to suffer cheerfully.

First, you should do it because they need to you to. Yes, I know that hearing the sermon is important. Walking safely in the halls is important. But running in church is important, too. No, I'm serious. Well, to be precise, being accepted and loved in church, in spite of child-like habits, is vitally important.

What children learn about God has less to do with their Sabbath School lesson, and more with how the adults treat them there. They may be slow in the critical thinking, but they're razor-sharp about feelings--your feelings about them to be exact. Kids believe in what they experience. And how they feel about their church experience IS their theology. 

Do you want them to believe in a God who's loving, gentle, encouraging, interested in their cares, and forgiving of their honest mistakes? Then you have to show them what that means. What do those words look like in real life? They won't learn it if they come to church to be shushed, halted, and disapproved of. 

If the church is going to pass the gospel on to a new generation, then being a kid-friendly place has to be a priority.

But it's not just for their sake. 

If kids believe what they experience, so do we. No matter what words we use to describe our theology, we believe what we live. When we pay more attention to someone's behavior than their hearts--as in, when we let ourselves judge them for being loud, or inconvenient, we do ourselves the most harm. Whether we mean to or not, we'll find ourselves worshiping a God who does the same. We are always our best selves, as a church, when we stretch to accept children.

Many years ago, one of our small Pennsylvania churches did a monthly "family Sabbath School" where the adults and kids did the morning lesson together. We took the adult lesson, and taught it with songs, and play-acting, and interactive questions.** I was hoping to draw more families to Sabbath School time. I didn't get as many as I wanted, and thought we should give it up (it was a lot of work), but the seniors objected. 

It turns out, the things we teach children are the building blocks of our faith. Lessons like trust in God's protection, love, and service to others, are the most important ones we learn. Teaching kids centers us back in the gospel.

Jesus also said "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:3

The truth is that the generations need each other. Adults need kids as much as kids need us. It's not an advantage that every church has. So if your church is one of the lucky ones, and you get to put up with the noise, and motion, and mess each week, make the most of it. Get acquainted with the children, and their parents. Look past the chaos, and enjoy the personalities. And if you need to, sit closer to the speaker.

"Let the little children come to me . . . " And be advised, they're going to come at a run.

*It's true that kids can speak up with a microphone in front of them, but this usually happens when they are unscripted. And that's a story for another day.

**Credit to Jeanne Hartwell, who created the Pennsylvania Conference Campmeeting's morning Family Worship meeting, from which I stole the idea.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Fellowship of the Church Parents' Room

There is a special kind of isolation that happens with parenthood, especially for mothers.  We are barely recovering from the cosmically un-private event of childbirth when the dial reverses. We scrape together our wits enough to go out in public, and a thoughtful friend ushers us into "this quiet room back here, where you can nurse in private."  We might welcome the room--I personally can remember plunging my whole head under the blanket when I had company over, and was still trying to get the hang of the latch-on. But needed or not, we cannot help but notice that all of the conversation is happening without us.

Thus it begins. The constant stream of infant needs leaves us overstressed and overtired, and if we get any free time, we nod off rather than picking up the phone.  This is parenthood. And it's more isolating than I expected.

Of course, the children grow. As the bag of needed battle-gear shrinks, the child's mobility grows to compensate. Now stranger-anxiety plays an odd dance with toddler independence, and the lovely people who were willing to hold the baby for us (invariably in cold and flu season) can't even do that for us.  As they start to sleep more regularly, we might not be tired zombies anymore, but now we are shackled to bedtimes.*

And then there's church. Church, of course, is no exception. I once read the opinion of a nameless stuffy man who insisted that church wasn't manly enough because it was "suited to the needs of women and children." I will not tell you how long I laughed when I read it. This man has obviously never taken small children to a church. It's not just the joy of trying to convince a 3-year-old that he is not, in fact, whispering, or juggling three plates in the potluck line.  There is also the fact that church may be the most isolated part of our week.

We start in the little Beginner Sabbath School, where we actually see some other parents in the same situation. We try to get in a little adult conversation, but not much, since it distracts the kids from their butterfly felts.

From there we head to the worship service, where we often land in the parents' room, not hearing the service because we're too busy tending our kids. I remember very well the feeling of being trapped.  Outside, in the church, were my friends, but I might not even see them in the melee of fixing emergencies and answering kid questions.  There, just out of reach beyond the (decidedly not-sound-proof) window was the adult world--I could see it, but it was out of reach.

The parents' room is like the "quiet back room to nurse in," only it's been institutionalized. We get to spend years of our lives in this room.  Sometimes we have other parents with us, depending on how big the church is. We can be quarantined together, and compare notes on our conditions.  We talk sometimes, and that's good.  Except that it guarantees we won't hear any of the service at all.

I don't regret the parents' room.  There would have been chunks of my life where I would not have come to church at all if that room wasn't there.  Because of the parents' room, I got to do two things: 1. Talk to people between services and afterward, reassuring myself that I am part of the community, and 2. Maintain the habit of getting dressed and going to church once a week, keeping a place reserved in my schedule for when the kids are older, and I can participate again.

Today's blog is dedicated to all of you parents, quarantined to the parents' room.  To you who get up on Sabbath mornings and dress in nice clothes which no one will see, who could show up to church without a Bible, but had better not forget the snacks. To all of you who haven't heard a sermon or participated in a song service uninterrupted for longer than you can remember.  To all of you in the holding tank, sequestered, and put aside, I want to honor you today.

Not everyone makes this choice. I have no blame for the parents who decide to skip this chore. It's reasonable, given the realities, to stay home. But that fact gives me all the more admiration for the parents who go.

You are important.  And you are making a difference. As little as it feels that you participate in church, still the church depends on you for its very life. If we don't keep this place reserved for church life in our families, if we don't pass this priority to our children, there is no church. This is the least-glorified, and (let's face it, evangelists) the most labor-intense form of evangelism.

On this Sabbath eve, as you take a breath from your busy week, and think about whether you can pull yourself out of bed tomorrow, I want you to know I see you. I'm with you. To all of you keeping vigil, waiting out your quarantine, hold on. Persist. In a thousand parents' rooms around the globe, you are not alone. The Fellowship of the Parents' Room is with you.  We know.  We're there.  And we'll see you on the other side.

Happy Sabbath!

*I confess that I have mixed feelings about all of this.  Before kids, I would have called myself an extrovert, and chosen to be out with friends whenever I had the chance.  After kids, confined to the house at night, I've gotten in touch with my inner homebody. Sometimes bedtime is a burden, but just as often, it's a handy excuse. The advent of Netflix may have something to do with the change.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Obligatory Halloween Blog

Last week we brought home pumpkins and carved them with the kids. Now, a week later, they are rotten, and I have to throw them away. I thought they would last longer than they did in our former, rainy climate, but I guess hollowed-out pumpkins don't do all that well in 80-degree weather. And I guess that next year, we'll be painting them instead.

I did look surreptitiously at my neighbor's porches to see if any of them had carved pumpkins, too. At first I assumed their absence was because this is an Adventist town, and we're all too pious here, but now I wonder if it's just that they knew better than I did.

It's Halloween time, and Halloween is a delicate topic in Christian communities. We all relate to it in different ways. I have lived in places where the church celebrated by bringing out the cautionary pamphlets, and refused to have a church social in October, lest someone get the wrong idea. I've gone to harvest parties, and I even remember, as a kid, being sent out to gather canned foods for Community Services on Halloween night (we usually got as much candy as canned goods). Of course, for the last many years, I've been able to avoid the issue altogether by getting completely exhausted with Reformation Day events.

I liked the holiday as a kid. I usually made my own costume, like the year I sewed fabric cat ears (made out of shoulder pads) to a headband and wore black. Or when I borrowed a tacky bathrobe and slippers, and put my hair in rollers. One year some friends and I went out trick-or-treating, and one had elf-ears on, and got constantly asked if she was Ross Perot.

But I have to admit that Halloween has changed since I was a kid. I don't remember lawns strewn with bloody body parts, or black-cloaked figures on porches that move when you tripped their motion sensors. The scary has gotten scarier, as the holiday-decor sales numbers attest. In fact, you don't get off the hook by not celebrating Halloween. When my kids see it on lawns, or in stores wherever we go, I have to deal with it.

And this is my real beef with Halloween. As a good Adventist, I teach my kids about the state of the dead--that death is like a dreamless sleep. And I ought, by that virtue, to be free from dealing with bedtime fears of ghosts and zombies. My kids should believe there's nothing scary in the dark, and go to sleep when they're supposed to. 

Instead, I have to explain.  I have to tell them this is pretend. People made this up, and they put out all these decorations for fun. Why is it fun? I don't really know.

I have some theories, though--theories I don't try to explain to four-year-olds. Perhaps all of this pretend darkness is fun, because it can be controlled. Because there is real darkness out there, real horror, and real evil, and it doesn't go away when it's time to change to Christmas decor.

And that's the reason why I don't bother having a strong opinion about Halloween. It's because there are real scary things in the world to worry about instead. As Christians, we know it better than anyone else.

The face of my own mortality is terrible enough. But then there are abuse, and oppression. There are the nasty things that people really do to one another, both in body and in spirit. Because there are parents out there who can't give their children enough to eat, and children growing up believing they must be bad because of what someone else did to them. Because men and women are wrestling right now with the cold sweat of addiction, or trying to survive in a culture that will never acknowledge them.

Because the evil isn't always on the outside, knocking to get in. And because we all suffer from sin, even before we're old enough to commit it.

Christians know what actual darkness is, and we know the source of the light, too. Kids in costumes don't count, and stage blood isn't enough to blip on the radar. We have no need to be afraid of witches or werewolves. The kind of evil that's made up, or at worst, imitation, isn't really the problem. Paul tells us we have bigger things to fight.*

So I don't have any judgment to offer on what you do on Halloween.  You can go to a harvest party, or meet the neighbors with hot cider out on your lawn.  You can stay indoors and keep your lights off. It won't really matter, if you're about the real business of the faith. What makes us Christians isn't what we say about the play darkness, but what we do about the real.

You and I are called to look the real darkness of the world in the eye, and bring the light to it. And this is all that really matters.

As for me, I plan to try again with the pumpkins, but I'll wait until next autumn, because I'm cheap. This year, my ten-year-old wants to go trick-or-treating with a friend. I got out her Reformation Day costume, and she's going as (Bloody) Mary Tudor. I think that ought to be terrifying enough.

*Ephesians 6:12

Friday, October 20, 2017

Tale From a Fire Zone

My world is on fire. The wildfires grew faster than my sense of reality could keep up. We'd had heavy wind all day on Sunday, and as I went to bed it grew to monstrous speeds.  So I wasn't alarmed when I woke in the night to the strong smell of smoke.  We'd had weeks of smoke from distant fires back in August.  While a sane person would have been ready to call the fire department and evacuate the house, I just chugged water to sooth my raspy throat and went back to sleep.

It wasn't until morning that I discovered it was a problem.  My local Facebook group was all over the news of wildfires in the region, threatening places we actually go.  Monday is grocery day, but I didn't go because the road I take was closed, and I didn't want to crowd the detour with all the displaced traffic.

K's school sent a message that they still had power and would be open--my first hint that the power was out beyond the college property on which we live.  She went to school, but within an hour, they sent us a message that, due to the lack of internet and cell network, we were free to pick up our kids if we wanted to. I took the twins and got her, not because I didn't feel safe, but because I like her home.

College classes went on, but J got messages from students who couldn't come in.  In all, about a third of his students never made it to class. It was getting smokey again as evening arrived.

Tuesday was a crazy mix of boredom and alarm.  The little airport just behind us was now home base for CalFire.  We listened to helicopters landing and taking off all through the day. Facebook started spitting out testimonials--stories and pictures, aerial views of the remnants of neighborhoods, buildings flaming red against the black sky. The college market promised generators and other emergency supplies were on the way, but the gas station was out of regular fuel. People wore dust-type masks on campus to filter the air. Meanwhile, I kept the kids inside because of the smoke, and struggled to keep them entertained.

There is a kind of barrier in our minds, I think, between normal life and real serious threat. We live day to day with the assurance that we will be fine.  There's no particular reason we think that, except that we are fine at the moment. The danger has to reach a certain threshold before it breaks through the wall and, as they say, "the (stuff) gets real." I've been in danger plenty of times. I can count on one hand the times my mortality became a living thing in front of my face.

I'm not sure exactly what pushed it over.  It might have been the weight of the photographs--most haunting was an Adventist academy I hadn't even known about until it was gone. The fire wasn't even two days old. How could something so sudden be so permanent?

But probably it was when the college sent word that it was cancelling classes for the rest of the week, so students could leave. The fires had threatened the two closest towns--one was evacuating.  Now there was a chance of losing our escape routes if certain roads closed. And now it was about me and my family, too.

The winds were set to pick up again that night. We went to bed not knowing what would happen, and woke to hurriedly check Facebook. The smoke smell was thick again, even in the house. We decided to leave.

It wasn't really evacuating. Sort of pre-emptive evacuation, and sort of taking a 5-day weekend. We decided over breakfast, and managed to drive out about 9am.  The kids gathered their clothes, and put toys in their backpacks, and I loaded up snacks for the car ride.

And then I got to the hard part.  What else should I take? I had the laptop and the phone charger. I pulled the files that had our documents for the car and our house, and the kids' birth certificates. I packed up the cat, his food, and a makeshift travel litterbox.  Then I stood alone in my bedroom, and looked at my things, and tried to decide to bring anything else.

My stuff.  I waited a long time for it. We'd moved in early August (so most of it had been packed in July), and a moving truck had finally delivered it at the end of September.  I remember my relief at seeing it--real couches to sit on, small appliances for cooking (I missed smoothies), other clothes. Real plates, and kids' books, and yarn to knit. (And this is where I thought maybe we shouldn't have had it moved yet, since it could all burn up.) It had seemed like a treasure trove at the time.

I stood and looked at it, and thought of all the free space in the minivan. What should I bring? My best yarn?  My collection of costumes? (too big to fit) A favorite decoration? The scrapbooks were all still in boxes in another building. Try as I might, I couldn't think of anything. It would either be here when we got back, or not. I took one book, and my current knitting project.

Fire is revealing. The wildfires didn't burn my home, and although they're still there, they're getting contained. But their presence in my world is instructive. When my sense of reality caught up with the burn paths, when the barrier in my mind finally gave way, things didn't look the same. The scope of value changed.

I have things of value--clothes I like, costumes I've made, expensive yarn. But instead I packed extra food for a cat with bad manners, one who was not going to make the trip better. (And, who was more likely to survive the fire than my stuff, since he has legs.) I walked past my wedding dishes and small appliances, and packed the kids snacks.

 And I didn't do it because I'm so unmaterialistic. Trust me, I love my stuff. It's just that some things are important and some aren't.

And we all know it.

The local Facebook community had no trouble with the idea. They advertised space in their homes for those who needed to evacuate.  They volunteered clothes from their closets, or food from their gardens.  They watched each other's homes, and looked after neighbor's pets. My favorite story was the one about the English department's adopted gray feral kitten, dubbed "Gandolf the Stray." Someone advertised looking for a humane trap to catch him, so he wouldn't have to be left behind. We got treated that night to a pic of his blue-eyed cuteness cowering in a corner, indignant but safe. Four days later, his rescuer posted a video showing a much happier cat, curled in a cardboard bed, graciously allowing a human to pet him.

So all that stuff the forestry people tell us is true--fires can do good things for us, as well as destroy. I don't want to speak lightly--thousands of people are suffering now because of the devastation. People have died. The spiritual carnage of loss is just as real as the charred homes. But we can do something about it.  We can take care of each other, if we remember what's important.

We're back home now. Classes have started again at the college, and I've finally made my grocery trip. Life could go back to normal. And I could forget. The barrier in my mind is easy to rebuild. But I have to fight to remember. I need to remember how it feels to look at my life in the light of the wildfires.  I need to remember what's important.

Whether we notice or not, we are all living in a world on fire.

God calls us to notice and serve our neighbors. When it comes down to it, we all know there is nothing in life worth protecting as much as the lives around you. We know, when we remember.

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.

That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

2 Peter 3:10-13

Photo Jeff Chiu/AP

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Tribute--To My Friends Who Popped Popcorn to Watch Annual Council

I have to give my church's General Conference President credit--the long and formal church governance meetings have ceased to be boring under his leadership.  It's been six years since the conflict over ordaining women broke onto center stage again, and church entities first went toe-to-toe on it. I can remember, early on, joking with a friend of mine about watching the meetings online for entertainment.  And yes, popcorn figured into our plans.

But lately, the entertainment value has shifted into a genre I don't watch for fun.  I still tune in, but it feels less like watching a football game, and more like a public execution.  Or maybe it's just a poorly paired boxing match. I see my team put up a fight, but there is no real hope.

This year, of course, we were all a little surprised when Annual Council came out as, essentially, a draw. The action being considered was sent back to a committee to be considered further, and likely returned to the floor next year. Probably all the church was in consternation trying to figure out who won.

And this is my first peace offering: I know my distress over watching is because my team is losing. Sure, I think the refs are biased (the refs are, after all, playing for the other team).  I see unfair calls, but it's the final score that matters most to me.  So when I see my friends on social media popping their own popcorn to cheer for the other team, I need perspective. I need to consider what it feels like to be them.

 I have a terrible truth to share. I don't want it to be true in this case, but I am afraid it must be, and the popcorn is my reminder.  It's this--we are usually closer to our opposition than to anyone else.

This is how I learned that:

A few years ago I was in a, let's say "interpersonal conflict" with another church volunteer.  It was new territory to me--I haven't had many of these before.  We were working together on an event, and it felt like every time there was a conflict, we were on opposite sides.  Actually, we were the opposite sides.  It was starting to feel personal.  While I was sure I was being honest in my opinions, I wondered if she didn't like ideas just because they came from me.

Finally we came to an impasse. There was a certain job we both felt best qualified to do.* We were both getting pressure from different sources to do it.**  It was intense.  For days, I went to bed, and couldn't fall asleep because I was too wound up, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.  I wanted desperately to distract myself.  I woke too early and couldn't get back to sleep.  I had no appetite, but I ate junk food, looking for something to feel happy about.

I felt trapped. I wanted to drop the project--the emotional cost was too high. But I had to fulfill my commitment. So I prayed about it as honestly as I could.  And then I cornered her one evening to suggest a compromise.

She didn't like it.  I could see her anger grow while I talked.  So I wasn't surprised--actually kind of relieved--when she let me have it after I finished. I don't know how long it took--maybe ten minutes. I had to stop myself, over and over, from framing replies in my head, while I listened.  And I'm glad I did, or I would have missed something important.

While she vented her anger, she told me how miserable her life was because of me.  She was having trouble sleeping.  She didn't want to eat.  She was miserable all the time because she couldn't get it out of her head.

I was supposed to feel guilt, or maybe anger, but strangely, I started to feel relief.  Even joy. Finally, FINALLY I was talking to someone who understood me.  She knew--she knew what I was going through. She was still wrong, of course, but I loved her anyway.

We compromised, and I promised I valued her.  But I couldn't really explain my feelings, and I understand if she thought I was faking it to make peace. We certainly didn't start agreeing because of it.  But it changed the way I saw her, and I still love her.

We are closer than we think to our "enemies."  That's good and bad news.

First the bad news. On one side, it means that who goes out and pops popcorn is less about having a purer character, and more about who is winning.  That's what it means to be polarized.  The same things happen to us when we feel pushed into a corner, no matter which corner it is.  We start talking just to our own side.  We let off stress by laughing at a caricature of the other side. We start to give an ear to fear-mongering. Maybe worst of all, we hold a double standard, using the same bad logic we condemn in others. And we justify ourselves because of how bad this image is that we have made of our enemies.

That's the bad news.  But there's good news.  There is someone out there who understand us, even if it is from the opposite side of the mirror. They, too, care enough to get involved.  They, too, feel enough conviction to try. They, too, want the organization or project or cause to succeed.

And they feel the pressure, too. For every fear of a church take-over by the supressive barefoot-and-pregnant crowd, there is someone else insisting it will be taken over by militant, secular, anti-moralists*** The world looks a lot different from the other side of the stand-off.  The problems look different, the proportions are all rearranged.  And I realize, in my saner moments, that if I believed that view of things, I might say the same things, want the same things.

This is what it means to be polarized--the conflict pushes us further and further toward the edges, further and further apart. Until we realized (if we ever do) that the poles bend, and we have come back together, staring at one another through a mirror, opposite but equal.

But that's not where we have to live.  I think there's a path forward for our church, but it isn't out at the edges.

We are a church family.  My experience of being in families says that we don't usually "solve" our arguments.  We live together in spite of them. We make allowances, and we put up with things we don't like, because we still love one another.  Because our relationships aren't based on the arguments, they're based on things we value more, things we have in common.

So this is my tribute to my friends on the other side:  I get it.  Maybe not your convictions, but your experience.  We didn't want to be in this together, but we can't help it.  And it turns out we have a lot more in common than it seems.

It's my hope, too, that we will get a chance to figure that out. I hope we can swim back upstream from the poles to which we've been relegated. I hope we remember how to be family.

For my own part, I intend to practice listening to you, even when I know you're wrong. And maybe we'll get a chance to remember all we agree on, after all.

Come over any time.  We'll pop popcorn.

*This is the most unbiased way I can explain the situation. Rest assured that it felt much more complicated at the time.

**Of course, I didn't know about her pressure then.

***What these people would want with a church, I don't know, but that's really not the point.

Friday, October 6, 2017

What's Going to Happen After Annual Council?

I get to watch this year's Annual Council from the hot seat.  This week, as leaders of the Adventist church's world divisions decide what to do about unions that ordain women the same way they do men, (in spite of stern warnings,) they are talking about me. In August, we moved to California,  the Pacific Union.  I like being in an ordaining union, but I know that when the other shoe falls, we're sitting right underneath it.

We all know it's not going to be good. The talk lately is that the "nuclear option," a hostile takeover of the Columbia and Pacific Unions, is not likely, although it is still hoped for by some.* But there's no question they will be voting some kind of retaliation. There is no written church policy forbidding it, and never has been, but the ordaining unions have been called "out of policy" for so long that the narrative has stuck.  It is certainly stuck in the minds of those who get to vote a church response.

I can't change that.  Trust me, I've tried.

I remember in 2012, just after the Union votes, I was literally barefoot and pregnant (with twins), gathering information to email to an unnamed Division President on a friend's request, before the "censure" vote that year. In 2015, I stayed up after the kids went to bed at night to help work on the book Questions and Answers on Women's Ordination so it could be published before the General Conference session. I don't regret my efforts, but they didn't exactly change the course of events.

I have no say in what happens at Annual Council.  But I can say what happens afterward.  I have no vote this week, but that doesn't make me powerless.  I don't know what the church leaders will do exactly, but I know what I'll do.

I'm going to stay here. Right here.

I don't know how I'm going to feel about it all, but I plan to stay in the Adventist church. This is why:

1. This is my faith.-- I may not agree with church leadership--hey, I might not even follow. But it was never about policy.  I'm not here for the organization, I'm here because of the faith.  The ideas I value most are at core of Adventist doctrine--loyalty to Scripture over creeds, the God who loves us, and saves us based on his own merit, not ours. A God who offers rest (Sabbath), who values our free will enough to die for it, who has the answer to all our pain (Second Coming).

2. These are my people.-- I belong to a local community, and they are my church. In fact, I've been to a number of local communities where I have belonged.  I know there are local churches where I might not fit in. It's okay. There is no one person, not even a committee, who gets to determine what Adventists must be. The body is bigger than those voices. I won't give up a real, living community because of a committee of people I've never met.

3. This is not the end of the story--Churches change.  This one has been worse in the past, and it will be better in the future. I don't know how long it will take or how hard it will be to pick ourselves up off our faces from this crisis. It will depend on other people's choices how far in the hole we get. But we've dug ourselves out as a denomination before. We'll do it again. There are better days, and more benevolent leaders, ahead.

So I have a plan for what happens after Annual Council. This is what I'm going to do:

1. I'm going to recover.  I don't know how long it will take.  I don't know how I'll feel. Luckily, last year's Annual Council has prepared me--I know at least that I can recover from a bullet-wound to my church loyalty. Time helps.  So do walks outdoors, a blanket and a tea-mug, music, and time with friends.

2. I'm going to worship. My faith isn't built on the work of committees of (mostly) men in suits. It rests on the generous and profound grace of God. It's about this Jesus who loves me personally, and who's promised to come back and fix the messes. The equality of men and women is only an outworking of the gospel. I plan to spend time submerged in that gospel, to remember why it matters, as well as what matters most.

3. I'm going to love my church. It's been a stressful ride for all of us. (In fact, it's probably been worse for those on the other side of the question.  It was they, after all, who had to the worse conspiracy theories to fear.) It's now when the church family needs one another most. So I'm going to stay engaged, nurture friendships, listen, and pray. I'm going to remember that my "church" is not out there somewhere, it's right here.

4. I'm going to keep working for what I believe. This isn't the end of the story. I think the church's rosy future is still a long way out, but I can work toward it. I'm going to preach when asked (and I might go and offer). I'm going to write and speak what I believe.  The idea of equality is getting stronger, in the world as well as the church. I'm not going to give up on it.

This is my plan. I don't know the future, but I've decided to be in it. I'm choosing to control the one thing I can--my own actions. Maybe I'm a lightweight, but I'm going to swing that weight toward the better elements of my church.

That's my nuclear apocalypse--I mean, Annual Council--survival plan.  I plan to survive (and get to better days somewhere--perhaps far--on the other side).

I hope you will, too. I could use the company.

*I have friends who talk about prepping the popcorn and snacks to watch the live feed. I think they're hoping for a fireworks show. Who knows? Maybe they will be just as disappointed as I am.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Good News about NFL-Gate

I'm calling it NFL-gate. The flap, the hype, the fury of whether profession football players stand or kneel during the national anthem is still making its rounds. While 49ers player Colin Kaepernick's choice was fodder for argument before, it got a gas-can of fuel poured over it this week by the President weighing in. And now my facebook feed is constantly confronting me with chances to be angry, either at football players, or their critics. Thanks a lot.

It's hard to decide what disturbs me most about this ruckus.  There are so many problems to choose from.

At first, I thought it was the deification of patriotism.  The deep, gut-level reaction to athletes not behaving right for the national anthem has been intense.  One Fox News Opinion article was subheaded with an explanation that, although the author loved the sport, "My God and my country will always come before football." The tight association between God and country is telling. Those boycotting the NFL may not be equating the one with the other, but they sure sound similar.

In fact, there's a certain mix of Christianity, patriotism, and love of the military that come together, and it is a growing subset of American culture.  And I am disturbed, not because I object to those values, but because of the assumption that they are inevitable, or inseparable, or that they are of similar value.

It's become a popular way to express your faith in politics, and because my church does not offer another model (since we have a strong aversion to mingling church and state), this subculture fills the vacuum. I am disturbed because members of my church are being played by these political winds.

But I am disturbed on a deeper level. Politics and faith aside, I am amazed that we are putting our energy into this at all. It reminds me of a Sabbath afternoon conversation I sat through one week. My friends were talking about the color of the elder's socks.  Apparently, when he sat on the platform, the congregation could see he was wearing white socks, instead of black. I couldn't even contribute to this conversation. I was dumbfounded that they thought someone else's sock color was this important. Even worse, some were sure we needed to do something about it, to make sure it didn't happen again.

Yes, I know there is a big difference between the elder's sock color, and athletes kneeling to make a political, or at least a social statement.  But the intensity of our interest is very similar. I am disturbed, not because people care about following the forms of honor for the national anthem, but because we care so much about having other people conform.

And I have wrestled with why--why is this a big deal?  Why do we feel such a strong need to get involved?  What, to be exact, makes this personal?

Because that's the only way to explain the sound and fury--it feels personal. In fact, those who kneel and those who stand both feel personally judged or disregarded by the other side. Imagine being a white citizen who feels that some of the players of the sport they pay cable charges to watch are calling them racists, and insulting one of their core values (their country) at the start of every game.  Imagine being a black player being told that fans care more about standing for the flag than about racism.

Worst of all, imagine being caught up in this argument, and never stopping to imagine what it feels like to be on the other side.

This is what disturbs me most about NFL-gate, and it ought to disturb you, too. The severity of the judgment or glory we are willing to hand out to complete strangers is telling. And it's not just about standing and kneeling.  We've gotten used to demonizing those who oppose us.  We have let ourselves substitute someone's politics, or their brand of the faith, or even their fandoms, for their value as a human being. It's impressive what nasty names you can earn by having the wrong ideas.We have jumped straight into anger, and forgotten to imagine.

Imagine if we invested our energy, not in creating clever memes of our ideas, but in understanding how someone could hold a different one.  Imagine what we would think of this issue is our life experience were different, or if the people around us believed differently. Imagine how we would treat this if we weren't being prodded by people who are trying to win elections, or at least ratings, by fueling our anger.

Today, you might have strong feelings, and you might be right about them. Good. I challenge you to use that power (being right, that is) for good, and not for evil. Use it to help your neighbor, and not to crush, ridicule, or alienate them.

It's not too late to reject the culture of anger. It is possible to defend our ideals without de-humanizing the other side. We can be both right, and generous.  Or we can play into the politics.

The good news is that NFL-gate can be an opportunity. I hope that it will wake us up, and remind us to use our imaginations.  And our inside voices.