Why I See It As Part of My Job As a Pastor to March in the Teacher Rally in Raleigh

downloadOmar was smart.

He never really got good marks, but he was smart.  And he never studied, but had he studied, those marks would have reflected that brain more fully.

I remember when Omar walked into class one day, head down.  His usual smirk was gone.  His eyes were red.

We started instruction, but he wasn’t into it.  As I gave the class an assignment, I invited Omar out into the hall with me.  We stepped out, I shut the door, and he started crying into my shoulder.  It was unlike him.  My quiet class clown, my jokester, my star basketball player.

His friend had been shot and killed ten hours ago.  Chicago alleys, turf warfare, all of it could get dangerous, and it didn’t matter your age.

He cried. I hugged him. He wiped his eyes.  And we went on to Algebra.

And then, a few weeks later, I remember when Omar didn’t walk into class that one morning.

Because he had been shot ten hours earlier.  His leg, shattered.

I went to go see him in the hospital. I brought McDonald’s. As he ate it I spoke to his mom in broken Spanish, and she to me in broken English. She was afraid to be in the hospital long because she was not a legal resident.  He had to heal, and she knew that, but she also had to sell tamales every morning, and how would they pay for the hospital bill?

They wouldn’t, of course.  No insurance, and tamales wouldn’t cover it.  Family would cobble together some funds, but it’d be a bill hanging over their heads.

In my classroom that year I also delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing.  I pulled up in my car, with a frozen turkey in the backseat.  My student, who lived there, was riding shotgun.

“Mr. Brown,” he said as we started to get out of the car, “when we walk in don’t say anything to anyone, OK?”

“Ok,” I said.  We walked up to the tall building, with people hanging around outside.  They called names at me, carrying the turkey and the bag, and to my student.  But I kept my eyes forward, keeping my promise.

Up the stairs, the elevator was broken, to the fourth floor.

His grandmother there, smiled widely.  She was so grateful for the Christmas gift. We sat and chatted, and then my student walked me out, gave me a hug, and I left.

The next time I’d see her was at her funeral, a few months later.  She was the only caretaker for my student, and so I attended the funeral, hugged his shoulder as he cried down the aisle, and a little while later he went to live with other family, elsewhere.

I’m not a professional teacher anymore, but tomorrow the teachers in Raleigh will be marching downtown.  They’ll be marching for better wages, more funding, smaller classes.  They’ll be coming in from around the state.

Someone asked me if I’d ever consider teaching in North Carolina, using my Masters in Education again.  “Not in North Carolina,” I said.  “I loved the classroom, but I can’t teach here.”

No longevity pay anymore.  Starting salaries, even with Masters degrees, are some of the poorest in the nation.

But even though I’m not a teacher anymore, I will be marching with them tomorrow.  And even though I’ll be taking a comp day to do so, I still see myself as “on the clock.”  It’s part of my job as a pastor, I think.

Because the classrooms of America are not just places of instruction.  They are places where social work happens.  Parenting happens.  Unofficial aunts and uncles sit behind those desks. Grief counselors lead children through stages of loss, all while being judged on whether or not their kids are performing on standardized tests.

And tell me who makes those standards?  If they haven’t had a kid cry on their shoulder because their friend was shot, or if they haven’t brought McDonald’s to a kid in the hospital and spoken in broken language to a family who doesn’t know what they’re going to do with that massive bill, then they’re unqualified to tell on-the-ground teachers what the standards are and what their pay should be.  If they haven’t delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing, and wondered at night what would happen to that kid now that his grandmother was dead, then they aren’t qualified to comment.

Even if you don’t have kids in school, or kids at all, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Even if you’re not a teacher, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Because we all have an investment in an educated society, in teachers compensated well, in a nation that actually cares about real education.

I may not be in the office tomorrow, but I’ll be on the clock.  Join me.

Every Easter I Wonder How Churches Who Don’t Ordain Women Get Around the Resurrection Account

resurrection-womenEvery Easter I have this ominous feeling that my colleagues in churches who don’t ordain women are skipping part of the resurrection story.

They have to be.  They must be. There’s no way that they can be reading the Gospel account and still not see the need to ordain women into the pastoral office.

Because here’s the truth of the resurrection story: women are the first to proclaim the resurrection.

They are the first ones entrusted with it.

They are the first preachers to those scared disciples in that upper room.

So how can they defend not ordaining women, especially on Easter, when on Easter they hear the women are entrusted with the sacred news first?

I really wonder.

Is it because of Paul’s letters, where he tells women to sit down in church (and he only writes that once, by the way)? Are we to believe that Paul has more authority than the risen Jesus?

Really?!

If we hold Paul’s letters as equal to the example of Jesus in the scripture, we need to honestly re-think our identity as “Christians,” and perhaps just fess up that we’re “Paulians.”

I mean, except for the rampant misogyny of the ancient world, it’s a wonder that women weren’t the first and only pastors of the church!  They were the only ones who stuck around through life, death, and resurrection.

And that rampant ancient misogyny still shows itself today, of course.

And you know it does.

Because there are tons of churches who will read the Easter text and not get a whiff of irony in it all as their all-male clergy dominate the roster.  Oh, sure, they’ll lift up the role women play in the world. As “helpers.”  As “good and faithful.” And at least good enough to teach Sunday school.

To the little children.  Not the older children. Or adults.  Women can’t have authority over men. 

And just when do men become men, by the way?  I’m a man. But I can’t really tell you when it happened…

And trust me, teaching Sunday school? That is no small thing.

But if that’s the extent of what women are empowered to do, it’s also not large enough.  Not large enough when the Gospel witness clearly shows, in all four Gospels, that the women are the first to know (and in most of the Gospels to tell) the resurrection good news to the scared and hiding men.

Perhaps this Easter some denominations will be raised from their ban on women clergy into the resurrection life of full participation.

You never know.  Crazier things have happened…like people being raised from the dead.

Esteban and the Importance of Not Walking Away Too Quickly

TreadmillFeatureI’m at the gym, running, and minding my own business.

I have earbuds in, and I always choose a treadmill at the end of a row if I can.  The fewer people around me the better.  Especially at the gym.  Part of the reason for this is because I sweat.

A lot.

Like, an embarrassing amount of sweating happens with me, especially when I run.  My elbows literally just fling sweat every which way.  You might think that’s too much information, but you’d be mistaken because that little sentence doesn’t do the reality justice.

The second reason I want few people around me is because I hate talking at the gym.  I go there to be alone with other people.

Yeah, you read that correctly.  I go to the gym to be alone in a crowd.  Because in my work I don’t get a whole lot of “anonymous time,” and I crave it.  I’m not famous or anything, but the circle of people who recognize me is large, much larger than I expect, sometimes.

Coffee shops, hospitals, even the local watering hole…I see people I know there all the time.  And that’s all well and good!  I’m not saying I don’t want to see people I know at these places.  I enjoy the chat, the pint, the moment of connection.

But I also enjoy moments of disconnection, too.  And I find I have to schedule them.

Anyway, I’m running at the end of a bank of treadmills, and suddenly I notice this presence at the machine next to me.

My eyes stare straight forward.  I’m one mile in.  My earbuds are in, but unfortunately only one of them works, so I can hear pretty well.

“You know,” the figure next to me says, “a lot of people don’t like talking to other people.  But not me. I’m a social guy.”

I keep running.  I’m praying he’s on the phone.

“I lived in Costa Rica for a while, which is why I call myself ‘Esteban.’ Stephen’s the name my momma gave me.  Esteban is the name the cab driver in Costa Rica gave me.  I go by either…”

I finally look over at him, and sure enough, he’s talking to me.  He’s walking on the treadmill, and is of some considerable size.  Maybe mid-30’s.  I keep my pace, and he’s just walking…sweating…like two travelers on different journeys who, except for the machines governing their paces, wouldn’t travel together.  I was running. He was walking.  We wouldn’t be side-by-side in any other world except for the gym: that unicorn of a place where everyone goes a different distance, together.

I consider ending the run early, or moving to another machine.

“I got stabbed in the neck once,” he continued.  I turned my eyes forward again, but now have to stay because, who wouldn’t after an opener like that?

“I lived.  Obviously.  Maybe I’m a Warlock or something.  Who gets stabbed in the neck and lives?”  I took his question as rhetorical. I’ll stay for the conversation, but I’m not taking any questions at this time.

“When I go to the doctor they always wonder if they’re reading my blood pressure correctly.  I have a great heart.  Good genes, I guess. My grandmother lived to be 103.  We’re all big people in my family.  Good genes.”  His pace, both in walking and in talking, stayed steady.  I continued to look ahead, smirking a bit.  I think he saw that.

“The nurses always take that blood pressure,” he laughed, “and then ask if I jog.  Do I look like I jog, lady?!” I smiled bigger.  That was funny.  Especially because he was the embodiment of “second-hand smoke.”  I could smell it on him the minute he walked up, and the tobacco smell only intensified as his pores opened.

2.9 miles in.  I’m not sure I want to get off at 3, though.  Esteban, the large hulking beast next to me was on a roll and I had yet to say a word.

“I like day drinking,” was his next statement.  “Not a lot, of course, but there’s something about having a beer in the middle of the day that changes the second half of anything.”

He wasn’t wrong.

3 miles.  I stopped my treadmill.

“Thanks for talking, man.  I’ve got a bit more to do,” he said.

I nodded, wiped down the machine that now looked like it had taken a swim, and walked out.  He turned his attention back forward and kept walking.

And even though I go to the gym to be anonymous, I guess some don’t.  Some go to not be anonymous anymore.

And somehow Esteban and I both figured out how to make it work.  I was alone with him.  And he was not alone anymore.

 

Why I Say “I Love You” A Lot

I-love-You-Letters-Text-HD-Images-e1474133154736-1024x427My wife picked up my phone and saw the latest text exchange with one of my best friends and colleagues, now in New Mexico.

As the sign off I said, “Love you.”

“Love you, too,” he texted back.

She started making kissy faces and saying, “Aww…so sweet. You and your boyfriend.”  We laughed, and she was right: it was sweet.  It was meant to be sweet, and endearing, and real.  Because we mean it.

My son, likewise, stops by my office every day to tell me he loves me.  He’s 4, and it’s part of our routine.  “I love you, too!” I say, and he trots down the hall with his class.

Unlike some fathers, I say “I love you” to my sons all the time.  They regularly get kissed and hugged by me, too.  They need to know that I love them, that I’m on their side, that I’m for them.  They’ll be detached from me one day, in those sulky teen years, but they’ll never wonder if I’m detached from them, because they’ll remember these years and know.

They’ll know.

Another friend of mine is going through a tough time.  I text him just about every morning these days and say, “Hey, love you. We’ll get through today.”  He needs to know that I love him, even if he can’t love himself.

I say “I love you” a lot, and it’s only increased as I’ve gotten older.

I think part of the reason I say it a lot is because I’ve watched the news these past ten years, and with the number of reports of people texting “I love you” right before the active shooter takes their toll, I’m not willing to have a text be the only time I’ve said it.

I think part of the reason I say it is because I’ve had too many kids sit in my office and tell me that, since they’ve come out, they don’t feel their parents love them anymore, or they say they “love them” but “don’t like their lifestyle,” as if those things can be parsed so simply.

Orientation is not a lifestyle, by the way; it’s a life.  And they need to hear that someone, maybe even someone who looks like their parent, loves them for them.

I think part of the reason I say it is because when a friend loses their spouse they don’t hear it much anymore, and they need to. We all need to hear it.

I think part of the reason I say it is because with all the abuse in organized religion, and with so many so-called Christians spouting things that sound nothing like love, hearing someone who works in the faith say it, and mean it with actions, is pretty important.

I think part of the reason I say it is because there are too many boys and men in this world who want to say, “I love you” to their best friend but don’t think they can because “boys don’t say that to one another.”

Yes they do.  They need to.

I think part of the reason I say “I love you” a lot is because I’ve buried a lot of people, and I have a really deep and ever-present awareness of time, and you don’t have forever to say it, so say it, by God.

So, if you didn’t know, I love you. Mean it.

Marie Kondo for the Soul

blog-image-2Watching Netflix’s new show about tidying up a house the “Marie Kondo way” is fascinating to me.

Part of the fascination is seeing how much fighting the couples featured on the show do about household work.  And it’s not fascinating in an “I can’t relate” sort of way, but more like, fascinating in the way you watch an old video of yourself and notice things you didn’t in the moment.

I relate. A bit too much.

Her now well-known practicing of taking out each thing from each drawer, closet, nook, and cranny, and asking yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” is practiced again and again by weary people just looking for a bit of sanity amidst the clutter.

And it got me to thinking of how freeing it was for these people to give up some things, and how I interact with people every day who wish they could do this same thing with the things they feel bad about in their life.

Like, I talk with people every day, who pick up that memory, that “time I didn’t call my mother back, and she died unexpectedly, and I never got to say goodbye,” and they look at it, the sadness of it, the hurt of it, and they just put it back in the drawer of their soul.

It doesn’t bring them joy, but there it still is.

Or they take out those hateful words they said to their spouse in a fit of rage, the words that put that person over the edge, and they can’t take it back…it’s already been used and there are no returns on words like that.  And they look at it with tears in their eyes, and they put it back.

Or they take out that time someone told them they were lazy, or stupid, or slutty, or no damn good, and they look at it crying, and put it back in the drawer of the soul because they just don’t know how not to believe that after all these years.

And sometimes I’m the person taking the memory out.  The memory of something I said, or was said to me.  Something I did or did not do. And I just lug all of this crap around with me, constantly, and when I pull it out I know it does not bring me joy.

But I put it back in my spiritual closet, anyway.

Why?

The genius of Kondo’s work is not that it’s revolutionary or innovative.  The genius in her work is that she has a system of closure for acknowledging the relationship and usefulness of things in such a way that we can give them up.

The genius is in the ritual goodbye.

And the church has such a system, too.  It’s called “Confession and Forgiveness.”

And it works, by God.  It’s one of the things I’d say the church gets very right.  The system of saying goodbye to the hurts we’ve done or we’ve had inflicted on us, it’s a good way to get rid of them.

Of course we’ve messed up the process a bit.  We’ve said confession blesses God more than it blesses the person, thereby turning it into a demand of guilt rather than an opportunity for healing and wholeness.

But when it’s done right it can be…freeing.

Like giving away things that not only don’t bring you joy, but bring you strife.  Like letting you let go of things you argue with yourself about, replaying a terrible tape of that terrible time as if re-watching it would make anything change…

It doesn’t. It won’t.  Acknowledge you’ve lost your usefulness for that memory, and give it up, by God.

I will admit, there are some times when I’ll pull out a memory, a deep wounding memory, one that I know has lost its usefulness, and I’ll look at it, with tears in my eyes, and slide it back into my heart.

Because I’m just not ready.  For some reason or another I hold on to things that hurt long past their due dates, by choice.  But each time I do, I know the day will come when I will give it up, like that old T-shirt that’s not fit to wear anymore but I just can’t let it go.

Confession is not a fix-all, just like Kondo’s process is not a fix-all.  Honestly, her work exposes a much deeper and more insidious problem than keeping things too long: we buy too much.

Which has a spiritual counterpart, too.  Because too often before I say a hurtful word, or just after someone has said something terrible to me, I’ll decide to keep that memory, to “buy it.”

And I don’t have to. I know I don’t.  Forgiveness gives me permission to say no to carrying it around, to say goodbye to it before I ever grab it and claim it as mine.

If I’ll just do it…if you’ll just do it.

We could all probably use some Marie Kondo in our houses.

And I’m willing to bet we could all use some for our souls, too.

 

“Jesus’ Rejection Letter” or “Hard Pass”

rejectionDear Mr. “of Nazareth,”*

We’re grateful that you applied for the position of pastor at our church.  Unfortunately we do not think that you are what we are looking for at this time.

In other words, “hard pass.”

We find you to be entirely too political in your public presence.  Word has gotten back to us that you participated in a recent riot at the temple, and were seen chasing people out of their stalls.  We find this kind of action unacceptable and far too controversial.

In addition, your sermon from the mountain top in recent days (which went viral, and not in a good way), though encouraging for certain demographics, failed to speak to all demographics with words of Godly comfort.  Making claims that some people are “blessed” implies that some are not, and we’re not comfortable with that kind of explicit bias.

In observing your lifestyle through social media, we note that you’re often found at local hangouts with people of questionable background.  As our mothers often told us, “Show us who you hang around, and you show us who you are.” We know who you are. These people are not the kind of people we want in our church, and should we call you as our pastor we’d expect you to cut ties with those kinds of people.

We also think you are far too young to lead a congregation on your own. At thirty-three years of age, you haven’t had enough experience to teach and preach the way you do. Your boldness is not only off-putting, but troubling to many, and maybe a bit narcissistic.

In addition you:

-do not dress appropriately for the role.

-do not adhere to the behavioral norms that we expect from our leaders (must you really break the rules so much?).

-seem to advocate for things/people/ideas that make us uncomfortable

-speak to women as you do men, and find that blurring of gender-lines to be confusing.

And while we like the fact that you can attract crowds, we’re afraid that would bring too much of the wrong kind of attention, and we’d prefer not to make waves.

We think that perhaps you should entertain going back to school for continued training, or consider a profession that doesn’t involve public ministry.

Sincerely,

Popular Christianity

*consider changing this name

Spiritual Lessons from NECCO and Bad Cake Bakers and the Pruning Hooks of Life

Oh, NECCO wafers…necco-wafers

I’m not sure I know any NECCO enthusiasts.  To me they taste kind of like a benign version of TUMS.  Just as chalky, but not as…well…nasty.

But at the news that NECCO was going out of business, people started buying the rolls of “great flavors!” candy like they were going out of style.

Because they were.

Each little quarter-sized wafer became a bitcoin all of a sudden.

And the panic was not without warrant.  NECCO is America’s oldest candy company, and not unlike Meister Brau and Toys ‘R’ Us, the potential loss of the icon was not so much the loss of a great product, but the loss of a great past in the eyes of many.

And then the bidding war started.  Candy moguls (there is such a thing) lined up to bid on the waffling wafers, with the Metropolous family winning out in the end.

You probably haven’t heard of the Metropolous family, but if you’re at all familiar with the incredible come-backs of Pabst Blue Ribbon (once the working class coozy filler and now a “trendy American lager”), Utz, and Twinkie, you’re familiar with the fruits of the family labor.

It’s not pretty, mind you.

If the Metropolous family were farmers, they’d be known as judicious pruners.  Their trees would we short but full of harvest.  They basically take whatever a company is best at and works only on that, stripping away everything that is no longer producing.

It’s a ruthless practice in many ways, and I don’t mean to romanticize it at all.  When making a comparison between the spiritual life and the actual lives that are behind a business, we run the risk of forgetting the spirit behind the stocks.

But we can learn something here, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Because NECCO was about to go belly-up, wholesale.  A total loss.

And I talk to people all the time who are quitting the faith wholesale all the time.  In their eyes, though the faith may be the longest single anchor in their lives, it has just become untenable anymore.  They feel they have to cut anchor altogether.

But what if, instead of doing that, they “sold it” in some form or fashion?

Not for profit, but for pruning.

Prune away the beliefs and ideas that are no longer life-giving.  Prune away the dead-end answers and the non-sensical moralisms.  Prune away the ideas that “defending Jesus” might mean not baking a cake for a gay couple because, God forbid, they might have something sweet on their wedding day.

I mean, c’mon. Let’s be real here.  If your religion asks you to be a jerk, it’s not worth following.  That can’t be right…prune it away.

Sometimes religion is just a cover to reinforce people’s xenophobia.  And not just the Christian religion, but any religion.  That, too, needs to be exposed and pruned away for the dead-end life that it is.

And for those of you ready to abandon the faith because some Colorado bakers are idiots: don’t.  Stay with it.  Don’t sell it wholesale, but understand that some people just can’t be made to love, no matter how much Jesus spoke about it, modeled it, commanded it even.

If Jesus were a baker, I bet he’d bake for anyone who showed up.  And every cake would rainbow-cake-finishedt-today-160621_86a1445147f5a7eda43a54f6e86033f4.today-inline-largehave a rainbow, regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer.  Because rainbows are pretty.

Allow some beliefs to be pruned away by the knife of life, which, when lived outside a bubble, will surely present you with some situations that will expose some faith ideas as inadequate for the demands of living in a world as diverse as this one.

But, and here’s the thing, I think a wholesale abandonment of the faith will prove to be inadequate, too.

Faith does not make sense of life; it helps life make some sense.  And, when it’s at its best, it keeps us from being jerks, it doesn’t encourage us to be one.

So, don’t sell off the faith wholesale, friend. Don’t lose the great past of your faith without fighting for it a bit.  You can lose parts of the faith of your past and still retain the best.

Focus on what is working best, and foster that spiritual muscle above all else.

Allow some good pruning to happen…and bake some cakes.