Words–even words on Facebook–matter

If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, you’ve got some angry (and scared) politically conservative friends and some angry (and scared) politically progressive friends. Today we’re all angry (and scared) as we see the news about another mass shooting. We’re united in our fear and outrage, but soon the blame game is going to start. We’ll soon hear that the recent tragedy is the fault of [Obama, gun control laws, spiritual famine, Muslims, intolerance, narcissism, self-interest, fill-in-the-blank].

Friends, my observation (for what it’s worth) is that even our behavior on Facebook gives us practice in being able to pick up a gun in anger (and fear) and bring it to our workplaces, our families, our neighborhoods, our congregations and our communities. Your “gun” (and mine) may not be literal, but aiming our figurative “guns” at other political parties, other people, other races, other religions, even other sports teams, flexes our muscles of retaliation and revenge (and fear). This isn’t about free speech. We can still celebrate our free speech but we can do so in a way that recognizes that what we have in common is so much more important than what we don’t have in common. Our “free speech” when it is loaded down with the barbs and the bullets of disrespect, hatred, and ignorance bring with it consequences. Sometimes the consequences are simply being “unfriended” on Facebook. Sometimes they are avoidance at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Sometimes the consequences of those barbs and bullets bring loss of life and national tragedy.

I’m not saying that our lack of civil discourse (especially on the beautiful world wide web) is the cause for mass shootings, but I know that it sure doesn’t help us move toward a more peaceful planet.

So, what would it look like for us to flex different muscles? What exercises should we maintain so that our impulse might be to offer a hand of help, encouragement, understanding, forgiveness, and grace to the “other” instead of casting judgement, throwing blame, and living in fear?

The letter of 1 John says that “perfect love casts out all fear.” How can our love be perfect? How can we eliminate that undercover agent of fear that motivates our harsh words, hasty judgement and heinous acts that lead to breaking news stories of tragedy? I don’t proclaim to know the answer to this really difficult question, but I think I know one place where we could start.

What if we were to see our neighbors, coworkers, Facebook friends, family members and even customer service workers beyond the categories that they hold (Republican/Democrat/black/Muslim/rural/poor/service providers/KU fan)? Could we possibly begin to see what we have in common (like our humanity, our sacred worth simply because we exist in the image of God, and our common suffering in life) is so much more than the categories we use for one another? What if we began to talk to “those people” out of love instead of out of fear or judgement or ignorance?

Our words—even our words on Facebook—matter. Can we practice flexing our muscles of kindness, care for one another, compassion and love or will we keep passing judgement on the “other” and bringing our “guns” to work/home/church/Facebook? Can our bullets be bullets of grace and forgiveness, understanding and love?

I pray that you (and I) choose words of life that are motivated by love rather than words that can act as ammunition that are motivated by fear. Ammunition works both ways. Let’s make sure that we’re using the right bullets.

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Coming Apart

Solarium

“Find time to come apart so that you don’t come apart.” I think I first heard that adage when I was in seminary fifteen years ago. The context is familiar…life is busy, pressures are common, we all know what is lined with good intentions. For many years I’ve intended on scheduling a couple of days at a retreat center to recover that part of my soul that was lost among the busyness in order to sleep, rest, pray, that I might be able to listen again to the voice of God. Come apart so that I don’t come apart.

Well, I confess that after the one time that a silent personal retreat was required for me (more than a dozen years ago now), I have not ever done this. Not once. Never. I live by myself, I’ve rebutted to no one but myself when the idea has come to my mind. If I want to get refilled and focus, I should probably do that with people…I am a pretty extreme extrovert, after all. Excuses, excuses, I say to myself (and anyone who stumbles across my forlorn little blog). So, finally, after the urges of my Spiritual Director (who I finally scheduled an appointment with last September and meet with monthly) and the encouragement of my boss (who has been so good to remind me that vacation/rest/etc. is important/allowed/encouraged/and just shy of mandated), I did it! I spent a whole 30 hours at a nearly desolate (but incredibly warm, hospitable and beautiful) monastery retreat center…by myself…resting, planning, recovering, and preparing for the year ahead.

Don’t get the wrong idea…they do have wifi in a few areas, which I utilized every couple of hours for a few minutes, the conditions were anything but Spartan, and I spent most of my time outside by the lake or in the Solarium (aka, library). I also enjoyed chats several time with a sassy “Sister of Mercy” named Sue. We swapped stories of Zimbabwe, work in the Church, and “big fish” stories—truly! (We both seemed to have seen a fish in the lake that no one else had ever seen…she said that maybe we had both been given a revelation. If anyone know what a Muskie means in symbology, let me know!) The rest of the time was so life-giving as I was able to get some clarity about how to go about my work this year, be healthy, and even make time for the life-giving relationships that I so desire.

Anyway, the time was so good for me to get away, rest, plan, think, fast, and pray. So, why did I wait so long to do this?

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A Time to Plant, a Time to Uproot

I vividly remember that the text for the first sermon I ever “preached” was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  It was Youth Sunday and my sister and I were asked to give the sermon together. She would address the first part of each verse and I would address the second part. I am 100% positive that it was a terrible sermon, but it wasn’t a total loss…the text has definitely stuck with me. There is a season for everything…a time to live, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to uproot. Basically, the takeaway for me was, “Don’t freak out when things change…things are bound to change. Life, death, love, hate, war, peace. You can’t ever get too comfortable. Things are bound to change.” There is beauty in that statement in the bad times and discomfort in that statement in the good times.

This afternoon as I was working outside in my yard, I was reminded of the truth of verse 2: “a time to plant and a time to uproot.” I spent the first hour of my work time digging up hostas and a part of a peony bush to transplant them. I picked out the shoots of leaves that looked most abundant and healthy so that I could dig them up and bring them down to my parents’ new home. I’m uprooting these hostas so that they can be planted elsewhere. Indeed, today was a time to uproot. Next Wednesday, when I deliver them, will be a time to plant. Beautiful how that works.

Transfering hastas

But, then my next task muddied the waters for me a bit as I considered what it means to uproot. I spent another half hour pulling weeds. Dandelions were a big culprit, but there were three or four other types that also spring up quickly and take over an otherwise (somewhat half-hearted) landscaped yard. As I was pulling up these weeds with ease, I thought about how strange it was that I had taken such great care to unearth the other plants and these I just pulled (also trying to get the root, but for the opposite reason) quickly, to send into the refuse barrel. At some point, “we” decided that some plants are desirable and others are undesirable. I totally get the reasons behind the decision about what’s undesirable, though. Left unattended, these weeds actually would likely take over the yard. They multiply quickly, grow speedily, and even choke out the other things that I actually intend to grow there. So, I spend time pulling them out by their roots (or other creative ways to eliminate them) so that they can’t find life in my yard. The desirable plants, my hostas and peonies are worth my time to carefully transfer to another location. They offer pretty flowers and actually will fill back in quite well after I thin them out by transplanting them. But those others…off to be destroyed!

weeds

The soundtrack to my work this afternoon was an episode of On Being, a NPR show by Krista Tippett. She was interviewing Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, a place for care giving and community for adults who are disabled. Within the L’Arche homes, those who need assistance and those who offer it both find healing and a place in community. I’ve long admired the work of L’Arche due to the writings of Henri Nouwen, but haven’t heard the voice of Vanier until today. His words inspired, humbled, and instructed me. He has lived a lifetime of intentional community, shared pain (his and others), joy, service, and study. His words were the background of my uprooting today. As I consider the things that I want to grow in my life, I am reminded of the things that spring up quickly and threaten to overtake my best laid plans. My impatience, worry, busyness often creep into my life in insidious ways. Vanier speaks frequently of love–God’s love and our love for God and others–and reminds me that at the heart of love is vulnerability. The love that God shows me is vulnerable, first in the person of Jesus Christ who became human and lived a God-infused life in human form. But second, God’s love offered to me and to you and to everyone is offered through the vulnerable vessel of humanity. God’s love is offered to me through each person that I encounter and, likewise I offer God’s love right back to them.

Of course I know this. I’ve preached this and taught this, written it and said it over and over again. But today, while pulling weeds, I heard it again in a powerful way. If I want to see things–the things like love, peace, generosity, contentment–grow, I need to pull the weeds. I also need to receive the “gift” of pruning when God uses someone else to pull a few weeds out of my life, too. There is a time to plant and a time to uproot. And it’s all in God’s timing. That’s both beautiful and discomforting. Today, however, I choose the beauty. Thanks Jean Vanier. I pray that one day I can embody the life of Christ that you embody. I just need to remember that there is a season for everything under the sun, a time to plant and a time to uproot. Here’s to both!

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Better than Real?

Spring has sprung where I live in Lincoln, Nebraska and many trees are filled with white, purple, and pink blossoms that point to new life in the days, weeks, and months ahead! Unless you are allergic, I’d imagine that you, like me, are celebrating the bright symbols of fruitfulness. The trees really are quite beautiful.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I saw a beautiful blossoming tree with it’s perfect flowers that, even at 10 yards away, looked a little too perfect.

Tree

Upon closer inspection, I discovered that it was indeed too perfect. Lo and behold, in downtown Lincoln is a sculpture of a tree that is masquerading as a flowering emblem of life and yet, it’s just a pretty amalgam of plastic, metal, and lights.

I can imagine the artist pitching the design:

Think about it: at Christmas, we’ll put white lights on it, illuminating a perfect silhouette of a tree that has shed it’s leaves. In the spring, we’ll string it with cherry blossom lights that will look so real that people will think that they’re in Japan or Washington DC! At night we’ll turn the lights on and then it will be even more engaging! And…no one will be allergic to these flowers! It will be better than if it was real!

Or that’s how I would have pitched it. Better than real. Except that, it’s not. Bolts are no substitution for roots and plastic isn’t better than the fragile feel of a flower petal, no matter how you spin it.

                                    tree, base                      Tree, blossoms

I couldn’t help but think about how frequently I have been like this tree. I have made editorial decisions about how to present myself, based on what I think others would like to see. Perhaps I’m afraid that my real self isn’t desirable or will cause others problems. I doubt I’m alone in this. We may hold back our beliefs, thoughts, or feelings because we are afraid that others may judge us, reject us, or not like us.

Unfortunately, there is a big problem with this. At the very least, it’s dishonest, but I think that it’s even worse. It actually shows a pretty significant lack of trust. When we don’t trust others with the gift of our authentic selves, we are showing too little faith in one another. And, we are thinking too little of ourselves. To put a finer point on it, I also think that it denies the work of God in our lives and in the lives of others that God has brought alongside us. Sharing the authentic gift of ourselves is really at the heart of the privilege of what it means for us to love one another, which is the second command of Christ, second only to loving God. Sharing authentically then of who we really are is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

The plastic/metal/lighted tree is pretty. But at the end of the day, it’s not real. I’ll take the risk, the beauty, and even the possible sneezes during allergy season any day. Real is always better.

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A Lenten Reflection: What we give up, what we gain

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, I was invited to preach at Southwestern College in their Chapel service. This, of course, was exciting as it is both my alma mater and the place where I served in ministry for 9 years. From the text of Luke 9:18-25, I shared about how we are called to give something up, and yet we gain more than we lose.

Lent involves two primary things: Confession and Repentance. In my sermon, I shared about how poignant this is for me and my family this year. Also, I shared that in the confession of Christ, we also must give up our expectations so that we might more fully embrace who Christ is and what the life is that he has for us. As we repent, we must give up something of great cost, that is our very lives. But, what we gain in confessing and repenting is worth far more than what we lose. Thanks be to God, and may we be ever mindful of this reality.

You can listen to my sermon, here. You can also find the archive of other SC Chapel sermons here: http://chapelatsc.blogspot.com/

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Today in Transition: From Winfield, KS to Lincoln, NE

rearview

It seems that the only thing unchanging is that things change.  After living in Winfield, KS, USA for 15 of the last 20 years, it seemed that actually, nothing changed.  I moved there 20 years ago this fall to attend Southwestern College.  My time at Southwestern has been marked by being challenged spiritually and intellectually, receiving life-long friendships, and ultimately, was the context for my call to ministry.  None of those things have changed in these last two decades.

And yet, things do change. 

I found out at the end of March that I would be moving to Lincoln, Nebraska to take a position with the United Methodist Church in the Great Plains Annual Conference (which includes Kansas and Nebraska).  This would mean that I would be leaving 9 years of ministry at my beloved Southwestern College.  When I consider the 3 most essential forces that have shaped who I am, it is my belief that Jesus really is who he said he was, my family, and Southwestern College and her people. 

Saying yes to this new position with the conference meant saying “see ya later” to my spiritual home, my relational network, and meaningful work.  Oh, I know that I’m being dramatic—my spiritual home can’t be bound to a physical address, my friends and family who love me and take care of me still love me, and I have more meaningful work ahead of me.  But give me a minute here, I’m grieving the loss of the relationships that I’ve had with a place and a people for more than half of my life.  (Boohoo, sob, sob.  Okay, I’m better now.)

Before I can talk about what saying goodbye mean, let me talk about what saying hello means.  Saying hello to my new position with the Great Plains Annual Conference means moving to a state where I had only been twice (a third time, but that wasn’t on purpose—just driving through).  It means serving Christ by working in the Great Plains Annual Conference to help recruit and develop new clergy.  It means working with a program that is helping young clergy transition into ministry well with an eye toward a life-long fruitful ministry.  It means moving to the really amazing town of Lincoln, Nebraska (says the woman who has only scratched the surface of the city and has yet to experience it in winter…but people survive here, so I’m sure I’ll be okay).  And it means being open to the work that God wants to do in my life in a really profound way.

If this is what I am saying yes to with this move and this new ministry, why would a person even hesitate a minute?

Well, you may have your reasons, but my reasons were that it’s a little scary setting out in a new city by oneself.  I’m an extreme extrovert and yet, it’s often difficult for me to go somewhere by myself if I don’t know how I fit into the context.  Besides being scary, moving is also hard work.  Some of the work is physical, like packing (endless boxes of what I’ve come to identify as mostly unimportant) but much of the work is emotional (endless decisions about which house to buy, where to put that lamp, and whether or not I should renovate the kitchen, which feels important, but probably isn’t in the long run).  And yet, taking into consideration the scary and hard parts of moving, it was surprisingly easy to say yes to this move.

It caught me by surprise that I could go so easily because it would mean that I would have to leave.  Duh, you say.  But I’m a pretty determined (read: stubborn) person and so I can usually figure out ways to make things work, even if the odds are against it.  So, perhaps, I was trying to figure out a way to go and yet not really leave.   My friends (bless ‘em) helped me get in on this plan.  They also helped me in incredible ways to celebrate despite their sadness over me leaving (thanks for that, friends).  But, they preciously devised ways of talking about me commuting to work in Lincoln and prayed with me “thanking God for the opportunity to be used in ministry…and whatever.”  The prayers reminded me and my community that when we say yes to following Christ, we say yes to going, to staying, to blooming where we are planted, to sacrifice, to abundance.

Something that has come up several times for me in the moving process is John Wesley’s Covenant prayer.  It’s a powerful prayer of submitting one’s life to Christ, to experiencing the fullness of life in Christ, and of walking with confidence into an unknown future.  I first encountered this prayer just prior to seminary and I’ve encountered it again since then at several important junctures.  The words of it have resonated in my head and heart nearly every day for the last two months.   

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

So, I’ve covenanted with God that I’ll go, or I’ll stay, wherever I’m called.  Whereas it meant Winfield, KS for 15 of the last 20 years (with a wonderful Wilmore, KY interlude of 5 years), it now means Lincoln, NE.  It is a goodbye of sorts to the really incredible life I had in the amazing little town of Winfield, KS, with an spectacular church, generous friends, awesome students, etc. (Exaggerate much? Actually, no.)  But somehow it doesn’t feel like goodbye.  My new reality has yet to sink in, but God’s gracious hands have moved me along to this new address.  I’ve found some familiar things that remind me of “home” and found some exciting new things that stir my heart.  I’m unpacked, getting settled, and preparing my heart for starting work this week.  My work is forever going to be shaped by my time in Winfield, in Wilmore, and now in Lincoln.

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary on my blog, I process things best with words.  I often don’t know what I think until I write it or say it.  I’ve had some opportunities to process this transition with words with others, but for some reason haven’t been able to write much about it.  I did, however, take pictures as I was experiencing the “Last times…” in the finals months.  Again, at the risk of being dramatic, I have found that when words failed, the picture captured something for me that I just couldn’t articulate.  So, until I have more words, I’ll just savor the images that God has emblazoned on my heart and look at the pictures one more time.

Transitions are not easy.  But they are a part of God’s enduring call on our lives.  We are in good company when we set out and leave home (or go home) as a part of God’s call.  I think of Abraham (excuse me, Abram), Joseph and Joshua whose lives were uprooted by a call to find a new home, one that was often fraught with difficulty, but also great blessing.  I also think of Ruth and Naomi, Samuel, and Jeremiah who had to be brave and say and do things that required courage in order to be obedient to God.  I think of Esther and Deborah who were in positions of power and who God used to further God’s purposes.  And of course, Peter, Paul, and Mary (the people of the New Testament, not the musicians—I’m not that old) were bold, faithful, and called to do difficult things.  I see bits of my own transition as I contemplate their transitions.  But the thing about transition is that it is always change.

So for today in transition, I’m looking at pictures on my phone and in my heart that show me that I can trust God for the future by celebrating his presence in the past.  And that is more than enough.

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A Word to our Graduates

Image

Well, graduates, you’ve done it!  You’ve done what only about 30% of Americans over age 25 have done!  You’ve earned a college degree.   We already knew that you were special—you chose to be a Builder.  But let me remind you that this accomplishment, as prestigious and important that it might be, is only just the beginning.

You’ve been trained well, you’ve worked hard, you’ve learned some really important skills—like the point when you absolutely MUST begin writing a paper in order to finish on time, how to find quality research for that paper, how to make a kickin’ presentation, and maybe even the best angle for your selfie to accentuate your face.  You’ve come away with relationships that have nurtured you, challenged you, and hopefully shown you that you are stronger than you thought you were.  You have finished one really important goal, but today, or tomorrow, rather, another one begins. 

Tomorrow is when you decide who you’re going to be when you’re not a student anymore.  Oh, I understand, some of you will still be a student.  You’ll go to grad school and you’ll get to keep marking your days and weeks in assignments completed, in books read, in tests passed.  But the time will come eventually when you must set your own deadlines for things.  When your boss wants the project completed by Monday but you already had plans all weekend.  When your paycheck doesn’t quite cover that new wish-list item.  And maybe when it doesn’t even quite cover that electricity bill.  When that happens, and some version of it will happen, here’s what I want you to remember:

You are a Builder.  That means something.  It means that you know how to build.  It’s not the kind of building that we do with a hammer and a nail, but it’s the kind of building of a meaningful life, professional credibility, and relationships with people different from you.  The idea of building these things may seem daunting to you right now.  In fact, I hear some of you saying, “Come on, Ashlee!  Give us a couple of days to celebrate before reality has to set in.”  I know, I know…it may seem harsh of me to remind you of difficulties that lie ahead even as you’re trying to forget the difficulties that you’ve just endured, but I offer these words that President Merriman read actually as an encouragement.  They’re words that were penned by the Apostle Paul when he was in prison.  He told a group of Christians this:  “I’m sure about this:  the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.”  In other words, keep building.  You’re not done yet.

Most of you lived in Cole or Wallingford Hall when you were a first year student.  You loved it because all your friends were right there.  You could always find somewhere to go to hang out with someone.  You didn’t have to be alone.  But by your second year, you were ready to move to Broadhurst, or Reid, or one of the apartment buildings.  Why is that?  Well, it seems that all of your friends were always right there.  People were always coming into your room to hang out with you.  You could never be alone. 

Here’s my point:  we have to learn to build in our lives.  Moving from a residence hall to an apartment gives you the change to figure out how to live with 3 other people.  It forces you to learn how to cook.  Or at least learn how to make friends with people who cook and then pay for the food.  But even if you did stay in Cole or Wallingford for all four years of college and you were graduating here today, we would have kicked out you tomorrow.  This is an important metaphor for your lives right now.  In some ways, you’ve outgrown your life here.  The challenges that you’ve navigated, quite well, in most cases, have given you skills, aspirations, new visions, and a frontier to conquer.  We would love to keep you here forever, and some of you we will get to keep a little longer, but I’m reminded that you come here, to leave.  College is one of the only times when that’s true.  We’ve built, or at least help you build your first solo house.  The one where mom and dad aren’t there all the time.  But now, we think you’re ready to build your house without us

You see…as the passage reminds us, a good work has begun in you.  A really good work.  It’s one that has set you up for success.  You’ve been loved by your families, your friends, your professors, and yes, I even dare say your administrators.  You’ve been pushed to think more deeply, to write more grammatically correctly, and to speak more persuasively.  And you’re here celebrating today, as well you should. 

 But as you leave, I can’t resist letting you know that even as we’re moving you along in the next steps of your life, we’re praying desperately Paul’s prayer that he prayed for the Phillipians.  God, may these students become mature in their love for others.  May it be richer and deeper.  May they be able to know what is most important in life so that they can spend their lives building that which is most important.  And may they do the right things, things that bring God glory, not just working toward a degree.  So, Builders…you’re not done building.  Just come back and visit every now and then. We wish you all the best and we trust you into God’s able hands.  Until we meet again, know that the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job.  Thanks be to God.  Amen! 

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