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.

“Dare I Take That Away?” A Question Every Pastor Wonders…

1668-lec6-1536x865In the mornings we would stay with her, my grandmother used to rise around 10am.  She was a late riser because she was a late drinker and laugh-er and argument-starter, and would often be up to see the clock tick past 1am.

And she would come out in her night clothes, silk usually, paisley as I remember them. And slippers even though it was Miami, Florida.  She called them “house shoes,” and they were for tooling around the house in the morning, or for going out to the back shed to start the laundry.  But nowhere else.  She was a respectable Southern woman, after all.  You weren’t caught in your rollers or house shoes…

And she would come out of her bedroom in those night clothes, pour herself a cup of coffee in a 50’s-style cup that could maybe hold four ounces, and she’d make one egg, over-medium, and sit at the little kitchen bar on a stool.  She’d pull out a cigarette, pull out the paper, light the cigarette, sip the coffee, and slowly eat the egg while devouring the Miami Herald’s front page.

I can still smell it.

Ever since I was a little boy I remember this routine.  I don’t remember it deviating much, unless we had morning plans.  But usually “morning plans” started at 11am at grandma’s house.

That was morning.

She was a woman of routine and I loved her for it. I loved her in it.  I loved her, and she loved it.  Even if it was frustrating at times.

Grandma was also a woman who loved her God.  She had been raised in the church, a Methodist by upbringing, but “a Lutheran by choice,” as she would say.  The pastor of her church, the church where she would become the secretary, came to their door in Miami Springs one day, and as they gave him a cold glass of water he invited her and my grandpa to attend the church he was starting.

And they did.

She would talk about her faith.  Not like an evangelist, but like one who had been evangelized.  Honest conversations.  She saw meaning in everything…sometimes to her detriment, I think.  She’d come out with an illogical statement, how someone’s universe had flipped upside-down because of some crazy thing that had happened years earlier, and we’d say, “Grandma, that doesn’t seem right…”

She’d laugh in this cackle of a person who had smoked since she was sixteen and would say something like, “Well, it doesn’t have to seem right! That’s how it is!”

That’s how it is.

Every pastor I know, including me, struggles with the phrase, “That’s how it is.”  Because our knowledge of theology, our knowledge of the Bible, our thoughts about society and God and how they interact, intermix, and intertwine…it has all changed.  It’s changed from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, and believe-you-me, it’s changed from the 2018’s to the 2019’s.

It’s changed.  And “that’s how it is” never holds up in the future very well.

And so sometimes conversations end up overlapping.  Sometimes new theologians come out of seminary smelling like books and sleepless nights arguing about Tillich, with their box of ideas, and they enter into much more ancient sanctuaries where people hold entirely different boxes.  And as the pastors unpack their boxes, and the parishioners peer inside their own, they see different contents.

And it can cause discomfort. Pain. Hurt. Even, yes, harm.

Faith can change. But it need not be destroyed. Even if it doesn’t seem “right.”

My grandmother was a woman of routine, and a woman of routine beliefs.  The world worked a certain way for her.  And, yes, she could change.  She did change.  She became outspoken for LGBTQ rights and Civil Rights.  She spoke Spanish, and eventually learned how to drive in such a way that we weren’t all scared of her being on the road.

But the changes came slowly, as all change usually does.  And it usually came from her falling in love first.  With people who were gay.  With people who didn’t look like her, talk like her, or even think like her.

But there were some things that never changed.  She conceived of heaven in a pearly-gates, golden-streets sort of way, and that never changed.  And even though that’s not my seminary-trained, science-brained view of heaven, I don’t think I’d ever have wanted to take that away from her.

Besides, it’s not like anyone knows what the afterlife is like, anyway.

So, dare I take that away?  Or could I just walk with her, asking questions, exploring notions, and providing my own perspective as I listened to hers?

Theology is done in the pews as well as in the academy, and pastors need to remember that.  I need to remember that.  And while hurtful doctrines and dogmas can, and should, be torn down like the idols they are, not everything that the newly trained seminarian thinks is outdated has lost its meaning.

Tear down the idols and the isms, but dare we take away everything?  Can we not still sing _In the Garden_ even though the theology is largely crap?  Dare we not use the phrase, “Jesus died for us” even if we have many asterisks next to what the phrase means, and each of us will have a different corresponding footnote?

My grandmother, in her paisley satin pajamas and little cup of coffee had a good routine (though that cigarette was probably not helpful), and even though I had a different morning routine that I thought was healthier, dare I take hers away from her?

Instead, I learned to do my routine, and when she appeared, shuffling in the house shoes, I’d sit down with her at the bar, chatting, laughing, and occasionally enduring her telling me to “be quiet” because she couldn’t read the headlines and talk at the same time.

Conversation led to engagement, love, and yes, change.  For both of us in some ways. Frustrating change.

Things have changed.  And will change.  And even I will change, and the things I was taught will be questioned and reformulated one day.

But if it’s not harmful or hurtful, dare we take it all away at once?  It might be frustrating, but it’s a good question.

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.

When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.

 

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.