Story, not a sermon

Hey look, I can post something other than sermon audio and accoutrement.

Stories are powerful. That’s not revelatory in any way. I know this. And yet, for months now, I’ve really wrestled with how we interact with stories: what stories do for us, what they do to us, how they define us, how they restrict us. I wrestle with this in terms of preaching and teaching at church, sure. I mean, I included this idea in the title of the first sermon in my series on the book of Ruth. And we’re investigating stories in our weekly youth group gathering. But it goes beyond church applications. What stories do we tell about our neighborhoods? About our families? About our politics?

That last one…oh, boy. That’s the proverbial $64,000 question, is it not? That’s the one we here in USAmerica have been falling all over ourselves trying to answer since the 2016 election brought us the shitstorm that is our current president. What stories got us to this point? How is it possible 62 million of us were perfectly fine checking that box for a man who is openly and unrepentantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic? Who openly and unrepentantly admits to sexual assault and is a cheating, lying, lout? What stories could possibly justify that?

Some of the answers are fairly obvious: decades of shitty, douchebag, dudebro, white frat boy rape culture coupled with centuries of white supremacy and its long, lingering tentacles.

I’m no sociologist (at least not a professional one. We’re probably all sociologists though, just as we are all theologians, even if we are unaware of it), but I wonder if we can drill down to the core of the stories we tell, the stories with which we surround ourselves? In so doing, can we learn enough about ourselves to answer the questions of the moment? Can we learn enough to change?

This week in youth group, I asked our students and adult leaders to write down no more than three of their favorite TV shows, movies, and books. Then we looked for connections among each person’s responses. Some noticed that all their choices were in the same genre — comedy or sci fi. Or they picked all detective stories or stories that focused on cool vehicles. (These are middle school students, after all.) Or stories of powerful kids. Or stories that are about the search for identity. (Ok, probably no surprise that was me.) Some saw no connections at all, their responses were so varied.

Those lists offer some insights, but as a way to keep digging I asked: To what types of stories are we attracted? What types of stories do we avoid? I intend to push farther into those questions next week as we consider how our interactions with, and preferences for and against, certain stories affects how we approach biblical stories. Which in turn affects the life of faith we strive to live.

As a group, our older students concluded they like to read dark stories but watch funny ones. We’re not yet sure what that means for them. We aim to find out.

One reason I’ve been thinking about all this from the perspective of story is a piece Eliot Peper wrote in Medium back in August. In it, Peper shares a story from the incomparable Neil Gaiman who said,

Stories are space-time machines. Through them, we can explore distant galaxies, visit the ancient past or the far future, and peek inside other people’s hearts and minds…The magic of escapist fiction is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place, and in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.

But Peper also shares a story of his courageous grandmother which leads him to this insight, truly a light-bulb moment for me:

But the Nazis who persecuted Helen, my grandparents, and so many millions of others were also inspired by stories. Theirs were stories of militant nationalism, will to power, racial superiority, and the return to a mythical past, stories that are disturbingly resurgent today. The Allies and the Axis both had stories they were willing to die for.

That’s part of our answer for the rise of Trumpism, is it not? The alt-right and all their supporters, both direct and indirect, tell themselves stories of “militant nationalism, will to power, and racial superiority.” As unbelievable as it seems to me that anyone could buy into those disgusting stories as a way of life, we must conclude that they are true believers.

Again, I hope you’ll read Peper’s whole essay. He concludes with questions I’m trying to respond to as well:

Take a moment to consider what that story [you’re enjoying] means, what larger narratives it fits into. Is it something you would die for? Is it something you would die to prevent? Who might suffer, and who might be empowered, if it were to come true?

 

View story at Medium.com

 

 

 

Happy New Year

[Note: I originally wrote this as my year-end letter to my congregation. But I thought it might be worth sharing a little wider.]

I intended to help us ring in the new year with a couple suggestions of ways we can challenge ourselves to learn and grow in our faith — which is to say, in our lives.

But then I ran into two quotes via social media that stopped me short, made me think, and are way more inspirational that what I had in mind. So let’s start there…

In the last few days, I’ve heard a lot of advice about making resolutions: “Only try to change one thing.” “Don’t repeat a previous resolution that you didn’t meet; it’s too easy to tell yourself it’s ok not make it again.” “Progress and perfection are not synonyms. You’ll improve if you consistently do things better — even if only slightly better.”

Those all strike me as good and valuable advice, especially regarding New Year’s resolutions. However, only if done in this context:

There is no resolution that, if kept, will make me more worthy to be loved. — Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Remember friends, God loves you exactly as you are.

The second, from my friend, Hugh Hollowell, reflecting on just what it is that they provide at Love Wins Ministries:

We can’t “do anything” for you. We can provide a warm place to be, a place to stay dry in the storm, a place to get a cup of coffee and a smile. We provide a place to belong, a place to invest in, a place to contribute and to find meaning and purpose….

We have community. We have a no judgement zone. We have safe space and hot coffee and fresh fruit and hugs if you want them. If you come here, we won’t be able to pay your rent or keep your lights on, but you will have a place to come after they kick you out, and a place to sit that isn’t dark.

This is a place you can still exercise choice and agency, a place where no one will laugh at you because you have dreams or can’t quiet the voices in your head. It’s a place where we will listen to your stories, and you can hear ours, and maybe, if we listen to each other, the world will be a little less scary for both of us.

Yes, we can tell you where the various programs are and how they work – Not because we want to fix you, but because we believe that all of us deserve to have as many options as possible, so we can make informed decisions about what is best for us.

Yes, we have warm clothes – Not because we want to pat ourselves on the back about our good deeds, but because we get offered things like that, and if you have something people you know need, it’s sinful to not offer to share it with them.

Yes, we provide food- Not because we have a “feeding program”, but because we believe that eating together is sacramental, that it creates a place we can each come and recognize the sacredness of each other.

But no, we can’t do anything “for” you. But if you give us a chance, we really look forward to doing all of that with you.

Isn’t that beautiful? If we were to write a similar statement about Woodridge United Methodist Church, how would it read? Or, for other contexts, how would you describe what it is you do, who it is you are or strive to be?

Maybe my original idea can help us write such a statement — or, even better, “write” such a statement with our lives.

Reflecting this past Sunday on the gospel story of Mary and Joseph losing Jesus in the Temple for three days (Luke 2:41-52), I suggested that this story is at once the most earthy and relatable gospel tale — most every child care provider as, at least once, felt the panic and terror of discovering their charge is no where to be found —  while simultaneously reminding us Jesus remains undomesticated, wild, beyond our full grasp.

Thus, it seems to me that a good way to attempt to live this gospel story is by challenging ourselves to find, see, hear Jesus in a new way in 2016.

Our congregation is blessed to include a fair amount of racial, age, and cultural diversity. Perhaps one challenge is to seek out someone in the congregation who is different from you in one of those ways and ask them if they will share some of their faith story with you. How might we be changed if younger and older, Black and White (or Filipino and White or Hispanic and Black, etc.), or long-time member and new-attendee intentionally sought out one another in order to listen to and learn from one another?

Perhaps another challenge is too seek out those of another religion in order to listen to and learn about their faith from them. Nearly every Thursday night, the Irshad Learning Group meets in the Fellowship Hall. That’s a great opportunity to both provide a welcoming presence and be a student.

Or, as I said Sunday, challenge yourself to hear Jesus in a new way in the cries of justice at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement or other current cultural expressions addressing injustice in the U.S.

Those are just a few ideas I have. What else comes to mind? How will you challenge yourself and your faith in 2016?

Happy New Year!

 

What’s in a name?

What is distinctive about the United Methodist Church? What is United Methodist identity?

In other words, what makes United Methodists United Methodists?

WUMC building
A look at our building

This is the question our Confirmation class pondered the last couple weeks. How would you respond?

(Or, for my non-UMC readers, how would you answer the question for your denomination or religion or organization with which you are affiliated?)

The first time we asked the Confirmands this, their answers ranged, it seems to me, from surprising to impressive to, frankly, a little scary. They wrote:

  • Anti-gambling.
  • Broke off from the Anglican church.
  • Anyone can take communion.
  • Only grape juice used for communion, no wine.
  • Started by John & Charles Wesley at Oxford in England.
  • The Wesley Quadrilateral of how to think about faith: through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.

As you can see, they mentioned some history, some worship practices, some social commentary, and some theology (which I’d also argue is in large part anthropology, but that’s probably a post for another day). Each item elicited more conversation.

Talking about gambling means talking about how state-run lottos prey on the poor as well as being good stewards of our money.

Talking about open communion means admitting none of us fully understands the sacrament but are all in need of God’s amazing grace.

Talking about using grape juice means talking about Methodist’s history of supporting Alcoholics Anonymous and – going back to open communion – wanting all present to be able to partake.

Talking about the Wesley brothers and how the Methodist movement got started means talking about reappropriating a slur into a badge of honor. It also means tracing our faith heritage back through the ages: UMC => Methodist Church & Evangelical United Brethren => Church of England => Roman Catholic Church => early followers of the Way => Jesus => Hebrews. Can you accurately place each of those pieces of church history on a timeline? Our Confirmands can.

Talking about how we come to believe what it is that we believe – using the Quadrilateral – means admitting to the human condition. We all read and think through those lenses, but the UMC is nearly unique in naming that reality.

As you might have surmised by now, it was a robust, wide-ranging conversation. But there was one other item a youth put on the board; one other way that they see United Methodist Church’s identity. Can you guess what it was?

  • Against gay rights.

It’s like having a mirror held up to your face and being forced to see what others see, regardless of how you view yourself. Like I said, a little scary. And certainly uncomfortable. Think about it: this is what our 7th and 8th graders think it means to be United Methodist. Is this what we want 7th and 8th graders to think? Is this the legacy we want to leave them?

Of course we talked about the complex nature of the United Methodist Church and gay rights. Doing so requires talking about the confusingly bifurcated Social Principles statements on human sexuality. It means talking about General Conference and how there is a decades-old movement to change the language to be fully welcoming and affirming of our gay sisters and brothers. It means talking about the most recent General Conference in 2012 when a proposal to just change the language to (paraphrasing here) “We United Methodists disagree about human sexuality and about how the church should and should not respond to LGBT sisters and brothers.” While that is so clearly the actual truth of our current reality, even that simple, honest change couldn’t pass.

All of that led to a terrific chat about ways to respond to this situation:

  1. Get fed up with super slow progress on accepting the LGBT community and leave to another church that is welcoming and affirming. Or leave church altogether.
  2. Stay in the UMC and ignore the issue, hoping it will go away or get resolved without me.
  3. Stay in the UMC and work for change.

We said all three of those responses are happening right now. The last of which leads to others staying in the church working to keep the language the same. For which of those four response will Woodridge UMC be known?

While it is quite disconcerting to look into the mirror that is our youth’s perceptions of our denomination, it is also a gift. It is an opportunity, an invitation even, for self-reflection. What is the state of the church we are handing over to the next generation? Are we living God’s call on our lives – as individuals, as families, and as a denomination – to transform the world with the Holy Spirit? If not, how will we improve it?

I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.