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Winning and Losing

It was a first for me, in 34 years of ministry. The fire alarm went off about five minutes into worship. And then it went off again, about five minutes later, mid-baptism. We evacuated the building…everyone was calm…I told people we would re-convene outside and wait to see what the fire chief had to say. It was fairly clear that we were having an alarm system malfunction and not a real fire, but it was going to take the firefighters a while to figure it all out, so we cancelled worship.

I may have appeared cool and collected on the outside, but my mind was going a mile a minute. Mostly, I was saying to myself, “This can’t be happening…we can’t cancel worship…it’s Music Sunday. Our choirs have prepared, the music is going to be gorgeous, and we planned the service so carefully.” I checked in with the fire chief once more, and then the grandmother of the children who were to be baptized found me on the front lawn. “Kelly, can you finish the baptism?” Sure! I filled a bowl with water, our sound board technician appeared to hold my book, I began the liturgy and when I finished, I heard music. The choir had gathered around the baptism family and the song began, “I was there to hear your borning cry…I’ll be there when you are old…” It was one of those magical moments.

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But as people dispersed and the building emptied, I felt the loss of what we had missed, the loss of the day’s carefully-planned and well-rehearsed worship experience, the music I’d been looking forward to, the prayer updates I wanted to share with the church family.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I gained a full sense of perspective. I have colleagues who serve churches where there have been real fires, devastating fires. Our building is intact, no one was injured. I still sting a little from the loss of a precious Sunday, but I’m aware that there is much reason for thankfulness. The loss was nothing compared to what it might have been.

Still, winning is more fun than losing.

Last night, our beloved Cleveland Cavaliers lost the NBA championship. All of us in the Cleveland area remember last year, and how fun it was to win. I don’t know that there has ever been a city more appreciative of a win or a team than Clevelanders were last June. But again, perspective is important.

The day before the NBA finals began, LeBron James’ California home was vandalized; someone painted a racial slur on the home’s gate. James handled the incident like a winner. He was the class act that we have known him so often to be. He was first concerned about his family’s safety, then he commented that perhaps if someone like him could be the victim of a hate crime, it will further the necessary conversation about race in America. From something that looks like such a loss, something good can come. In one interview, he said, “I’m at a point in my life where my priorities are in place and basketball comes second to my family. It actually comes after me continuing to be a role model to the youth and focusing on what I can do with my foundation.” LeBron James is a winner in my book.

Anytime we can remember the things that matter most, we win. Anytime we can act and respond in love, and remember that we are loved, we win.

“Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:57)

13 Reasons Why

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“The way we treat each other and look out for each other.  It has to get better.”

This past Saturday I finished watching the Netflix series, “Thirteen Reasons Why.”  Watching 13 hours of television in a relatively short time span was a major commitment for me.  (I’m not bragging about how virtuously I spend my free time – I waste plenty of time – just not usually in front of the TV!)  But I had heard so much about this series I felt compelled to watch it and finish it.

“Thirteen Reasons Why”, based on the book of the same title, has young adults as its main characters and its target audience.  The series is about a high school student named Hannah Baker who decides to commit suicide after experiencing bullying and sexual assault from several classmates.  She leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, each one telling the story of a friend or acquaintance who (in her words) could have done more to help her.

Should parents watch “Thirteen Reasons Why?”  I strongly urge them to do so.  Yes, it is fiction, but students say that there are many similarities between the fictional Liberty High and the culture in many real high schools.  It is not easy to watch.  It graphically portrays drinking, bullying and rape as well as suicide.

I agree with the wisdom of these two articles (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/13-reasons-why-parents-should-watch-the-netflix-series_us_5907a3c8e4b05279d4edbee1, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/panic-life/201705/13-reasons-why-you-should-watch-13-reasons-why) – I would not recommend the show to students, especially younger high school students, those who might be triggered by any of the afore-mentioned topics, or those watching without parental support.  The reality is that many students binge-watched the 13 episodes before many parents had even heard of it.  While the topics are still fresh, parents can catch up and take advantage of the opportunity to have conversation about high school culture today and the way individual students respond to it.

The male protagonist is a high school student named Clay Jensen.  Wise beyond his years, Clay often seems to be one of the more mature characters, almost a voice of moral authority.  In the last episode, Clay confronts the high school guidance counselor, claiming that he was ineffective in preventing Hannah’s suicide.  Clay says to the counselor, “It has to get better.  The way we treat each other and look out for each other.  It has to get better somehow.”

As a church leader, I couldn’t help but wonder how the main characters would have been different if any of them had been active in a church youth group.  Would any of them have had second thoughts about participating in such vicious, destructive behavior?  Might Hannah have had someone else to turn to, other than the school guidance counselor?

The series has been criticized, especially for the suicide scene, which some professionals fear could produce “copycat” behavior in teens.  I understand that worry, and I don’t disagree with it, but the fact is, the series is out there, and young people are watching it.  So I encourage parents to watch it and talk to their teenage sons and daughters about it.

I didn’t like the atmosphere at Liberty High, and I found the show painful to watch at times, but I’m glad I watched “Thirteen Reasons Why.”  I need to know what school is like for the students in our church.  I need to know about cyber-bullying, about shaming and name-calling.  We can’t confront problems if we’re not aware of them.  With eyes wide open, we can now begin to change the culture and treat one another better.

A Lesson in Patience

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Friday was a trying day.  Fridays are my day “off” and I have a routine.  I put a load of laundry in, and then head to the computer to work on my sermon.  Each load of laundry gives me a break, a chance to walk around the house, stretch my legs and my mind, and then it’s back to the computer until the sermon is finished.

This past Friday, I had a good start on the sermon already.  I thought I’d be finished by 12 or 1, and have a chance to get to the gym before packing up for our annual women’s retreat.

Friday started normally.  I glanced at my phone before I headed downstairs about 6.  No urgent emails, everything looked normal.  By the time I got on the computer about an hour later, I had dozens of emails.  Turns out that my email system was hacked into successfully at 6:30 AM, and (after I changed my password), I began responding to…eventually…hundreds of people who received an email from my email address with a suspicious-looking attachment.  Aargh.  So much for the gym.  Finished laundry, finished sermon, picked up bread for communion and headed for the women’s retreat only 15 minutes after my intended departure time.

One of the things I love about living in Cleveland is the ease of traffic, but Friday was an exception.  The trip to the Jesuit Retreat House that usually takes 30 minutes took 90.  An accident created a major back-up.  I arrived at the retreat house an hour after I’d wanted to, only minutes before dinner began.  I tried to hide the stress I was feeling, the frustration that my day hadn’t gone as I’d hoped, the disappointment that I hadn’t been able to work out, the anger at the time wasted and lost.

Our first session began at 7.  We were introduced to the life of Hildegard of Bingen, the most influential woman of the Middle Ages – a writer, preacher, leader, herbalist, musician, composer, and rabble-rouser.  Hildegard was sent to the monastery at age 8, and spent the first 30 years of her life in what is called “an enclosure”, a small room attached to the monastery which she DID NOT LEAVE for 30 years.  With no ability to explore the outer world, she developed, fully, a rich inner life.  She learned everything she could from those who taught her, she absorbed the rhythms of life in a Benedictine monastery, she became a confidante to those outside the monastery walls who would come to her window and tell them her problems.  She began to play and compose music while she was, literally, walled-in.  She developed strong opinions about the way the church was being run; she knew of its corruption and – because she also was a student of scripture – she knew the corruption was unbiblical.

I try to imagine being unable to leave one small room for 30 years, and I cannot.  I can’t imagine 30 days.  Hildegard’s time was different, to be sure; opportunities for women were certainly limited and the monastic option was one of the more attractive.  Still, most people who lived a cloistered life were much less productive than she.  She sowed seeds for every one of those 30 years; growing within her was a curiosity about music, spirituality, the natural world, and ways she could speak her mind.

When she was finally able to leave the small enclosure, all of those seeds took fruit.  She was more widely traveled than any other woman of her time.  She founded two monasteries, wrote prolifically on a wide variety of topics, and corresponded with popes.  Hers is a prototypical example of a life lived well:  talents and time used to the fullest.

After listening to what Hildegard did with her life under acutely difficult circumstances, somehow the angst of my day faded away.  Problems with technology and traffic get on our nerves, but some historical perspective makes our complaints almost laughable.  If I thought my Friday was a day to try one’s patience, well…let’s just say I ended the day full of gratitude for the peace of a retreat center and the lesson of Hildegard’s life.

Becoming Who We are Meant to Be

Usually the week after Christmas is one of the least serious weeks of the year for me.  It’s always a quiet week at church.  Customarily, the most pressing matters on my mind are which Christmas cookies to serve at which family gathering.  This week was different.  In addition to some lovely time spent with relatives, I engaged in three significant conversations with three young adults:  one who is facing a cancer diagnosis, one who is in legal trouble, and one who is making remarkable progress figuring out his life and his future.  I corresponded with an older person who is considering a dramatic lifestyle change as she thinks about how to live the rest of her life with abundance and authenticity.  And then, on Wednesday morning of this week, we learned of the death of a 27-year-old nephew.

On this New Year’s Eve, all of these individuals are on my mind and heart as I do my own reflection on the year that is ending.  I have been using this tool this year –  the  Holstee Reflection Guide– which asks some helpful basic questions.  Whether it’s today, tomorrow, or sometime in January, I commend a year-end/year-beginning reflection practice to you.  It’s so easy and tempting, in this rushed pace most of us live, to go from day to day, year to year, without pausing to think about how we are living.  I love the example from one of the creation stories in Genesis in which God pauses, at the end of each day of creation, to look around at what has been made.  God looks at the sun, moon and stars, and says, “It is good”.  God looks at the waters full of fish and the variety of birds in the skies and says, “It is good.”  And then on the seventh day, God takes a whole day to rest.  If even God needs to reflect, give thanks, and rest, perhaps we would all be more creative if we learned that pattern and practice.

My own practice is what Julia Cameron recommends in her books as “morning pages”, writing three free-hand pages first thing every morning about whatever comes to your mind.  I believe in looking to the past, not to feel guilt or shame or regret, but to learn more about myself.  And I find that twenty minutes or so of reflection every morning helps me listen to my inner wisdom, rather than being swayed by the way others are living.

My husband Doug and I saw the movie, “La La Land” yesterday afternoon and it was the perfect way to end this week.  The very first scene (a song and dance routine in the middle of an LA traffic jam) had me grinning ear to ear.  The movie is a joyous celebration of creativity and imagination, and also raises some interesting questions about the price of following one’s dreams.

Becoming who we are meant to be is hard work, the work of a lifetime.  Catherine of Siena puts it best:  “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

I dedicate this post to our nephew, Russell Brill, who lived his too-short life with passion and creativity.  His father wrote this achingly beautiful and honest obituary.

To everyone who reads this, my New Year’s prayer for each of us is for health, for the ability to conquer our demons, and for lives that glow with joy that is deep and real.

 

 

For such a time as this…

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It was in August when I planned my fall preaching schedule, choosing for this coming Sunday – Thanksgiving Sunday – the scripture passage, Matthew 5:13-16.  “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…a city built on a hill cannot be hid.”  The United States of America has been called the city on a hill; sometimes we have claimed that for ourselves.  We are concluding a three-week worship series entitled, “On Solid Ground.”  My sermon title is, “Grateful for the Best of our Heritage.”  I still intend to preach on that scripture, using that sermon title, but I’m also going to address this question directly:  “How do we live faithfully in anxious and fearful times?”

This past Sunday, our church had our best worship attendance since Easter.  Maybe it was a fluke.  Maybe it was the pancake breakfast!  But my hunch is that part of it was that many people are feeling afraid and anxious, and they wanted to remind themselves of their grounding.

On Wednesday night, my friend Maggie Stark told about her day at her workplace:  Kendal at Oberlin, a retirement living community.  Most of the residents she spoke to that day had voted for Clinton. Most feel devastated about the election results, worried for the future for their children and grandchildren.  One couple was considering moving back to Canada.  She said it reminded her of the days after September 11.

Not everyone feels devastated, of course, but many feel a sense of uncertainty.  Here are other reactions I’ve witnessed in the past (long) six days:

One couple said to me Sunday, “We considered cancelling our family Thanksgiving dinner this year.  Our family is all over the political spectrum.  One family member is protesting the election results.  We voted for Trump, but we’re scared.”

One person of color came into my office and said she no longer feels safe in this community.

One woman was harassed because she has a Clinton bumper sticker on her car.

One man was stopped on the street by a woman who pointed at him and yelled, “You voted for Trump, didn’t you?”

Some people are grieving.  Some people are deeply angry.  Some people genuinely do not understand the grief and anger.

My pastoral role, my role as a preacher, is to help us find our footing.  I believe that there are several specific purposes for us as people of faith in these times, in this deeply divided nation.  Churches like ours – united because of our common calling to be disciples – are needed now more than ever.  In my sermon this Sunday, I will give some practical advice as to how we can live faithfully in the midst of our fear and anxiety.  I will share my vision of what our church is called to do and be in these days.

 

Give Me Your Eyes

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On the third day after the election results, I am filled with admiration for the ways that my family members, friends and colleagues are reacting.  Each is following the pull of individual conscience.  One relative, with very little disposable income, has made financial contributions to causes she believes need to be supported now more than ever.  One colleague wrote a beautiful pastoral letter to her congregation, challenging them to take a concrete step towards reconciliation (and taking one step herself.)

We knew, before the results early Wednesday morning, that our nation was divided.  Now we know just how sharply divided we are.  One candidate won the popular vote, the other won the electoral college.  In the county in which I live and serve, the margin was 388 votes, less than 0.3 percent!

Wednesday night, we at the Avon Lake United Church of Christ were celebrating the end of our six-week fall programming we call CrossTraining.  CrossTraining, which also occurs during Lent, is an opportunity for our church family to come together for a meal, an informal worship, and classes for all ages.  The class I led this session was a book discussion of Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracyhhdcover2

We had a respectful and heartfelt conclusion to our book study, and then we went next door where the class on Understanding God in Islam and Christianity was also wrapping up.  That class had been attended by both Christians and Muslims, most of them members of Cleveland’s Turkish community.  Our Turkish friends brought food to the last class session, so we were all invited to sample desserts, drink Turkish tea, and mingle with one another.  It felt like church at its best, and exactly what we are called to be doing at this moment in our nation.

Two weeks ago, during CrossTraining worship, we showed a powerful video in which Muslim immigrants and native Europeans look each other in the eye for four minutes:

When I follow the tug of my heart and conscience, I feel called to find the people in my county who voted differently than I and look them in the eyes for four minutes.  I want to listen to their stories.

I know that some people voted for Mr. Trump because they feel the American dream has left them behind.  That I understand.  What grieves me is that some also feel that the only way they will get ahead is by leaving others behind.  In theological terms, we call that a scarcity mentality:  “there’s not enough to go around, so let me grab mine while I can.”  The faith I proclaim is one of abundance:  there is enough to go around, and we all do better when we pull one another up.  Life is not a teeter-totter where every four years, one group of persons is listened to and another denigrated.  Our country will not progress if the rights that have been enjoyed by some these last eight years are now squashed in favor of others.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m going to trust my instincts and look for opportunities for conversations that open eyes, hearts and minds to the reality that we live in a world of abundance.

No Glee, No Despair

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First reflections on the morning after the presidential election.  I have several emails already from parishioners who are devastated by the election results.  I know that I have parishioners and friends who voted for Trump and who are pleased with the news they’re waking up to this morning.

It is time to listen to one another, not about the election results, but about our stories and the truth of our lives.  Like it or not, one learning from this election is that people who have felt ignored found their voice.

Both presidential candidates demonized the other side.  It was wrong for Donald Trump to not vehemently disavow support from those who are known white supremacists.  It was wrong for Hillary Clinton to call a large group of Americans “deplorables.”

There are too many people in this country who are hungry and homeless.  Too many feel that the American dream is completely out of their reach.  How will we bring good news to the poor in these next four years?  How will we bring about liberty for those who are oppressed?

I find inspiration in stories of resistance.  I think of the brave men and women of the underground railroad, who risked their lives to shepherd slaves to safety.  I think of those who kept Jews in their attics and basements during World War II, those who gave them false papers and stowed them away on boats and trains.  I think of women like Edith Cavell, the inspiration for the book, The Nightingale, who helped allied servicemen in occupied France escape over the Pyrenees into Spain and the people of the French village le Chambon who hid many Jewish children.

I’m talking about the kind of resistance that is personal and risky.  Some people may feel called to write vitriolic twitter posts, or to carry protest signs.  I feel called to get to know the people in this country who feel disenfranchised and advocate on their behalf.  I feel called to do what I can to encourage our young people to become involved in our political system so that we have better choices for leaders in the future.  I feel called to resist the pull of apathy and cynicism.

Let’s be countercultural, because the status quo is not working.  Let’s be countercultural and refuse to accept that our only two options are glee and despair.  We cannot spend the next four years complaining and obstructing; we cannot spend the next four years gloating.  There is too much real work to be done.

This is not resistance towards one political party or one president.  This is resistance to a system that has left many behind, resistance to the rhetoric of hate that has left many today feeling afraid.

This is not the day for gleeful celebration.  Neither is this the day for wallowing in despair.  This is the day to roll up our sleeves and get to work on behalf of the people Jesus loves.  He would seek out the people who are feeling forgotten, overlooked, ignored, and despised.  He would reach out to them with compassion.

Truly, we must learn to live together as sisters and brothers or perish together as fools.