hurt: (verb) to inflict with physical pain; to do substantial or material harm to; to cause emotional pain or anguish to; to suffer pain or grief; origin: 13th century, middle english

About 2 months ago, I found myself sitting in a community center in a meeting room, at a table with about 10 other people, talking about my faith story and some of my experiences. As I came to a particular part of my story, I found my throat closing up, my eyes becoming blurred, and I began to feel hot tears fighting their way out from my eyes. I turned my head to keep from showing my face and the room grew silent except for the sound of my sobs as I tried to fight back more and more tears. At some point, I just let them happen. I let the tears of hurt come out of me because they were part of me. And it hurt so much more to try and hold them in.

Point of clarification: they are still a part of me. And I still hurt, but a little less than I did that morning. Each morning it hurts a little less.

Let me back up just a little. That morning I went to meet with the session of the church in Chicago that I transferred my membership to. They graciously agreed to allow my membership into their beautiful community, and to take me under care as I finish my ordination process. They sat around the table with smiles and looks of eagerness to hear what I had to say. They sat there with so much love for someone who they barely knew. That’s why the hurt was able to come through. Because they instantly loved me as a fellow child of God, and I was able to let the hurt out instead of trying to hide it because I knew that there would be no shame for the hurt. Instead, I there was comfort in the midst of such hurt.

As I spoke of my love for the church and for the work that I had done, I recalled a recent time where I was truly hurt but the church. Not hurt by the institution or by an individual church community, but by the people of the wider church. Not because they hated me or because they were malicious, but because they were hurt. They were so deeply hurt already when I showed up on the scene, and there was nothing that could prepare me for such hurt. You see, if it’s not addressed with love and kindness, hurt will spread like wildfire.

I know hurt, and sorrow, and sadness, and remorse, and fear. But I was unprepared for this. Nothing could have prepared me for the hurt that these people were feeling. As a completely new seminary graduate, I expected to be challenged, and I put on my church cape and went in, head first, to do my job. I was ready for whatever came my way.

No. No, I was not.

I was not ready for these people I came to love so much to take out their hurt on me. I was not ready to see people who were so hurt, turn malicious towards myself and my spouse. I was not ready to be left to defend myself in a sea of people with nothing to catch me when I fell. I was not ready for the church to hurt me.

But that’s the reality of the church. Sometimes, the church hurts those of us who love it most. They say that those you love the most hurt you the most. And its true. The church can treat you like you are not a person, but a disposable thing. The church has re-victimized the victims; the church has failed to support those who need it most; the church has been critical of others when they fail to look in the mirror; the church has failed to welcome like Christ welcomed. The church has done a lot of hurt and has the potential to do more.

But the church has also done a lot of good and has the potential to do more. This is the balance that hangs like the scales of lady justice. If one side should become overweighted, then the other flails at the sudden change in weight. The balance is crucial for the scales to remain in place.

But when the scales are tipped the other way, when the scale of justice and good and God’s love are overweighted, then the scale of injustice and hurt are thrown off, they become less heavy, and they struggle to become heavy again.

But as the church, that is our task. Our task is to make those scales of justice and injustice so thrown off that they are no longer plural. Our job is to have one scale that hangs so low with the weight of love and justice and peace that we have to keep expanding it and making it bigger to include all the peace and love and justice that we could imagine and some we could never imagine.

But, there is always injustice, and because we are not perfect, there will always be hurt. And thank goodness, there will always be those who hold us in our hurt and love us, so that when others are hurt we can do the same for them. There will always be those who try to tip the scales so that justice wins out and weighs a little heavier than the hurt and injustice that the world so often experiences. We should try so hard to be those people.

Posted in blogs, church, god, PCUSA, Presbytery of Chicago, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

suffering: (noun) pain that is caused by injury, illness, loss, etc. : physical, mental, or emotional pain: origin: 14th century

This last Sunday, i was given the honor of preaching for Fourth Presbyterian’s Jazz Service. Here’ a copy of the sermon I gave. 

Hint: this is my attempt to become more comfortable with putting this stuff out there and being unapologetic about it. If you’re gonna walk a dog, do it with pride. 

Today’s Old Testament Scripture comes to us from the book of Job. There has been a lot of talk about Job in the past few weeks. And at this point in his story, he is looking for God his judge to hear him out.

Job answered:

Today my complaint is again bittier; my strength is weighed down because of my groaning.

Oh, that I could know how to find him – come to his dwelling place;

I would lay out my case before him, fill my mouth with arguments, know the words with which he would answer, understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me through brute force?

No, he would surely listen to me.

There those who do the right thing can argue with him; I could escape from my judge forever.

Look, I go east; he’s not there. West, and don’t discover him; north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him; he turns South, and I don’t see.

God has weakened my mind; the Almighty has frightened me. Still I’m not annihilated by darkness; he has hidden deep darkness from me.

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 (CEB)

For most people, the book of Job immediately sends our brains to suffering and recalls our own times of suffering. The character of Job is the ultimate example of suffering for people of faith and for non-believers. He is the man whom Holocaust survivor and author, Elie Wiesel, regarded as the most important example of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War.

He is the man that so many of us pity and at the same time most of us can relate to on some level because his story is highly individualized among those found in the Bible, rivaled, arguably, only by the story of Daniel.

The entirety of the book is about one person, his relationship to God, and the great struggle that he endures. Job is the innocent person that faces great loss and even greater pain. More than likely, at some point, each of us has felt like maybe we were Job.

Job is described at the beginning of his story by the writer as, “a man that was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pairs of oxen, five hundred female donkeys, and a vast number of servants, so that he was greater than all the people of the east.

Job regularly offered burnt offerings to God to make sure that whatever his children did would not come back to haunt him, but that they would be absolved of their sins in case they took God’s name in vain or did something unfavorable in the eyes of God. But by the end of verse 22, all of Job’s possessions and children have been lost at the hand of the adversary or Satan as he is commonly known.

“In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God.” (Job 1:22, CEB)

All of this happens because God is faithful in Job’s faithfulness.

And yet, as faithful as Job is, I find that incredibly frustrating. While I can only hope that God is faithful in me as God’s child, I truly pray that what happened in the story of Job doesn’t happen to me or to anyone I love. Ever.

We are at the point in his story when Job’s friends have already come to visit him and tell him that obviously he has done something wrong, there is some lamenting and some mulling over of his problems, some crying out for God to hear his case, there is some lingering hope, another lament, and now we are back to searching for God the judge.

As the story progresses, God becomes for Job the great Judge, and Job wants his day in court, and he longs for his case to be heard so that he will understand why all of this is happening to him, and theoretically, and if Job is lucky, justice will be dolled out unto him and he will have understanding and he will have justice.

If an injustice were to be done to us or should we be wrongly accused, we have a judicial system in place that we would cry out for our day in court because the intent is that justice will be served to those who have had an injustice committed against them. As humans we cry out for our stories to he heard so that action can be taken to right the wrong.

Since I met my wife 4 years ago, I have seen a lot of people who long for their day in court for the injustices that have been done to them. They want the facts of their cases to be heard by those who are supposed to doll out justice in our human-created system, so that they will be vindicated and their lives will be restored and that the punishment that has been unfairly inflicted upon them will be lifted. The wrong that has been done to them will soon be made right.

To give you context, my wife is an attorney. She represents those who have been wrongfully convicted, or atleast, that’s the goal. She seeks to bring justice for those who have been punished for things that they didn’t do. I won’t get into the semantics of it all because everyone has different opinions on peoples’ innocence or guilt, and I fully admit my own bias as her wife. But all of that aside, when I read this short piece of Scripture, I hear the voices of people who are crying out for a fair judge and a fair trial. I hear the voices of those who are oppressed by tyranny and by those who are innocent and made to suffer at the hands of another. When I hear the story of Job I hear the stories of those in our time and place who are crying out for someone who is just and has the power to right the wrong, to hear their story.

Suffering is quite the problem for so many in our world. So many suffer. But then I wonder: do we even have to suffer? Is it possible to have the Utopia that people dream about? We see so many movies now about the future dystopia that is possible, but is the utopia of a suffering free world possible?

Saint Augustine of Hippo believed that people caused suffering because God gave humans free will. But then where does that leave God to alleviate the suffering? Are Job’s cries in vain? God is an active player in Job’s story, so why would we assume that God will not act?

In the Buddhist tradition, dukkha, the term used for suffering, is a very important concept. Dukkha is identified in the first of the Four Noble Truths. But it doesn’t just mean suffering, it covers everything that comes with it: anxiety, stress, discontent, being unsatisfied. All of these are forms of suffering.

The concept is that our lives revolve around suffering and we are constantly unsatisfied. Our job is to overcome this un-satisfaction in our lives and find a way to overcome it. It is not thought of as a pessimistic or optimistic view of life, but a realistic one in which suffering is simply part of our lives, and it’s our job to come to terms with it. Once we have come to terms with it we can begin to understand it, and then we can start the process of overcoming it.

The Buddhist tradition teaches that the things that cause us stress are temporary things.  And when we cling to those things that are temporary, like money, possessions, or other things that we cannot take with us in death, we allow ourselves to suffer. It’s like we’re doing it to ourselves. That is what Job’s friends claimed: he must have done something to warrant such suffering from God. But it’s more than that.


Job’s suffering goes beyond material things. Sure, his camels are gone and his donkeys are wiped out, but so are his children and the people of his household. So are the people whom he loved so dearly. Is it wrong to love those around you? Are they part of the temporal; part of the world of suffering that Buddhism would have us overcome? How does Job get past the injustice of his children being taken from him? How does he lament their passing and still overcome suffering? It’s a question many ask that have experienced the death of a loved one. How do we move on from the pain and suffering that we experience?

How do the families of those men and women who have been wrongly convicted go on when their loved ones are taken from them and they are left at the hands of a system that is meant to usher in justice? How do these men and women go on when they have been left to a life of suffering for a crime they did nothing to commit? How do we get it right so that justice is given in the right places at the right time and for the people that cry out for it? How do we, as believers in God, overcome this problem of suffering in our lives when we believe in a God who is good and present and just?

In 1998, seventeen year-old Jarrett Adams went to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater to visit a friend. While there, he was accused of raping a young woman. With a public defense lawyer who was probably underpaid and overworked, he was not given an adequate defense and not all evidence was presented in his trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Adams maintained his innocence from the very beginning. In 2007, his conviction was overturned in a federal court based on evidence that was available but never used in trial. Justice was given to Adams for the wrong done against him and for his suffering for crimes he didn’t commit. But not everyone gets justice. There are still so many who suffer all over the world.

We like to think that because we set up our justice system that it is infallible. We like to think that because God created the world and called it good, that the world is infallible. Sadly, this is not the case.

The world we live in is one in which there is much fault and thus, much suffering.

So where is God the good judge in all of this?

Theologian and ethicist Miguel De la Torre argues that God is active in the world, but not as the one who causes suffering or the one who watches from afar or as the judge to hear out our cases, but as the God who is with us in our suffering as the God that loves us and offers us comfort in our suffering.

The spoiler alert is that Job turns out okay. He is given many more animals back by God, he is given more children, more beautiful than the last. He lives to see four generations of his family and he dies and old, happy, and content man. But this is not how it always turns out. Because our world is full of suffering and not all who suffer will get a rich reward such as Job’s. There are many in our world that suffer for their entire lives, and never is justice given to them.

This is where we come in.

In our gospel reading from Mark, a man asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says, “you know the commandments.” The man answers, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a child.” Then Jesus looks at him and says, “that’s not enough. You are lacking something. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and walked away saddened, because he had many possessions. The gospel requires more than us being good people in the abstract, it is an active good. To follow Jesus is to live a life of service to others. To follow Jesus is to live a life where others come first. To follow Jesus is to help lessen the suffering of others.

Jarrett Adams, the young man who was wrongfully imprisoned and convicted of a crime that he did not commit was not given the full measure of justice. We do not live in a perfect society.

At the age of 21, Jarrett’s life restarted. He went from being a seventeen-year old teenager, to a 21 year-old man. Google was not around when we went into prison; while other young people his age were graduating high school and going off to college or starting in the workforce, Jarrett missed out on those formative experiences. During his time in prison he got his GED, and he became his own self-advocate. He sought out those who could help him by trying to learn the legal system. Once out of prison there was still much he had to do. He struggled to put himself through college and then into law school. After his law school graduation he received the honor of clerking for a judge on the 7th circuit court of appeals. He fundraised on his own so that he could pay his bills and have money to live off of while he clerked. Jarrett did not get his life handed back to him like Job did. He built it back up from the ground and with the help of others: like his lawyers and those who donated to his fundraising, and through those who gave him a chance when his resume didn’t look like the resume’s of other young men his age. God didn’t automatically give him back his wealth and possessions like Job; Jarrett did it through his own hard work and with the help and support of so many others.

I can remember my mother telling me as a child that nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that life is fair. And she was right. There is nothing in this story or throughout Scriptures that tells us that our lives will be fair and just.

There is nothing in Scripture that says that our lives will be free of suffering. Our world does not operate with those who are good as being free form suffering, and those who do bad things as the ones who are punished. Our world is not a just place. What Jesus is telling us to do in this passage in Mark is to turn our focus away from ourselves and away from our material possessions and turn towards others. It is not that money and other things in our lives are evil, but prioritizing them over others is where we fail to take Christ’s message to love our neighbor seriously.

Job’s story is a painful one to recount. He was a righteous man who lived a good life. He had many possessions and many people he loved. But tragedy befell him, and Job sought answers to his injustice. Job’s friends did him a disservice when they told him that it was something that he did, because as we know, he did nothing wrong. So it is with us. God is right here with us in our suffering. Just as God is with us, so should we be with one another. This requires us to heed the call of Christ, to rearrange our priorities, to turn away from the material things of this world. It requires us to love one another as God loves us.




Posted in blogs, Chicago, church, god, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

urban: (adjective) of, relating to, designating a city or town; living in a city; origin: 1610-1620, latin

City from Ohio St. Interchange

It’s lovely. Just lovely.

And I would be happy to never set foot in it again.

There. I said it. I hate living in Chicago. Maybe hate is too strong of a word. I seriously dislike living in Chicago.

Now, I did not say I hated Chicago. I love Chicago. (Notice the emphasis with the bold and italics there.) It is one of the greatest cities besides the politics, racism, and ridiculous housing costs. There’s green space, there are lovely people (except for the drivers), it’s a progressive and a safe space for so many LGBTQ people, and there is nowhere on earth where you can get so many different kinds of amazing, authentic food in one city. You heard me New York city. You can’t hold a torch to the food in Chicago. Not even one as big as the Statue of Liberty is holding.

Loving Chicago and living here are not words that always pair together well. I love New York City, I love Ramallah, Palestine, I love California, but none of these are places I want to, or plan on, ever living in. Loving and being willing to live with are different things.

But you will never appreciate springtime like you do here…

Flowers in Spring


They plant flowers everywhere. You name it, there are plants everywhere. And they are lovely because you know that in their place was once gross, dirty, grey, snow.

No, snow is not always pretty here.

Sure, after that first layer, it’s beautiful. pristine even. I love to stand outside and smell the air as the snow falls and covers the city in a gentle blanket of snow that sweetly says, “I’m here. Time for hot cocoa, the Kriskindle Market, sledding, and watching the waves crash and turn into ice sculptures along the shoreline. I’m here, time to slowdown a bit and hibernate.” And it comes in so gentle that you get excited. You get out your snow boots and your ice scrapers, and you realize that the cocoa gets old and you gain weight from drinking so much of it to stay warm; the Kriskindle Market is flooded with tourists who drop applesauce allover the ground and can’t seem to figure out what’s going on (but there is that delicious mulled cider); sledding is exciting for a while until the snow gets grey and gross and turns into piles of ice that take up that last precious parking spot on your street; watching the ice sculptures form only reminds you of the bitter cold that is going to be setting in for a good 7 months; and instead of hibernation, it’s the seasonal-depression disorder that settles in for so many of us that keeps us in bed and makes us yearn for sunlight that is so bright it could melt our skin right off.

Oh, Chicago. How lovely you are, but how desperate you make us for warmer weather. There are those of us who would give just about anything for warmer weather. For now, it’s a matter or praying that the cold days will cease to stop popping up by June and look towards the sweltering heat of July in the middle of the city.

Posted in Chicago, travel, Uncategorized, Urban | Leave a comment

progressive: (adjective) moving forward; happening or developing gradually over a period of time; using or interested in new modern ideas; origin: first known use of progressive: circa 1612

For the last three days I have been attending the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference held at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, IL. As the inaugural event there were highs and lows. First off, let me be clear, no conference is perfect. What is important about a conference is that it helps bring about change for the better. If people come away enlightened, educated, energized, and informed, then I consider it a success, even if there are some not-so-great things happening. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan talking about sex. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

The event was put on by Fourth Presbyterian Church and the JoPa Group. If you were to ask me what the JoPa group does, I would say they are a couple of mid-western white guys who used to be more conservative evangelical Christians and now have turned away from that and call themselves “progressive” Christians and they put on conferences, give talks, and overstimulate audiences. They are not unlike so many others out there. I’m not saying that as a criticism but based on what I witnessed and what many others I spoke with saw as well. They have good things to say, and they talk really, really fast.

Tony Jones and Tripp Fuller talking about the Homebrewed Christianity. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Tony Jones and Tripp Fuller talking about the Homebrewed Christianity. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

I’ve never heard of the JoPa group but apparently they are all over the place when it comes to the emergent Christian scene of ex-evangelicals. It made a girl feel pretty out of the loop when it came to the cool kids club. But then I got a hold of myself. Overall, the conference was organized and was really, really interesting. I give lots of kudos for them and to Fourth for talking about such topics as gender theory, queer theology, issues of LGBTQIAS at a conference like this for youth leaders. That in itself was enough for me.

Based on my observations and those who I spoke with at the conference from all over North America, here are some pro and con things that people witnessed:

Pro: Good session presenters for individual sessions./Con: Pretty much male-dominated (are we surprised?).

Pro: Lots of talk about queer theology, sexuality, and gender. These are topics that so many youth workers want and need to know about. Just because you might support the gay kid in your youth group doesn’t mean you necessarily know what to do next. With so many church conferences going on, this is the first time I have ever witnessed this conversation and this alone, for me, made the conference completely worth while./Con: Many of the presenters (primarily associated with the JoPa group) focused in on the “hipster” vibe of many youth leaders and tended to drop some swearing that was awkward and made even a sailor like myself uncomfortable at times. Not all youth leaders are white men who are trying to rage against the man.

Pro: Lots of multiple learning styles used. Rev. Shawna Bowman was on hand with her iPad and Page 53 app that allows one to make some incredible works of art. These were displayed on a screen at the front for all to see as she created them./Con: Lots of inside jokes used by co-host Tony Jones that only those in his circle would understand which left the rest of us in the dark and feeling like we were missing out on his beer-drinking and cigar smoking with his other buddies.

Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Pro: Relevant topics. Gender, sex, sexuality, talking about the harsh realities of the Bible, how to teach youth and kids so they don’t have to un-learn things later, addressing the horrible youth ministry games that most should be fired for, and more here. Many of these topics get glazed over in other spaces, but not here. /Con: Where was the prayer? Where were the sacred spaces? I overheard one of the presenters ask, “where’s the prayer in this place?” With a plethora of conversation and idea birthing, where was the sacred space? The opening worship began with Rev. Otis Moss Jones III preaching and he brought it. I mean, Jesus went up the hill to calvary my friends. It was awesome. But between opening and closing worship, where were the moments of breath where we could soak it all in. Some of the presenters spoke so fast without pause that their attempt to cram into 30 minutes as many ideas as they could get out, simply left most of us bewildered and unable to grasp the ideas they were trying to share.

Pro: Homebrewed Christianity. A regular podcast, these guys like beer and apparently Neihbur. Give it a listen sometimes./Con: Homebrewed Christianity. It wasn’t as exciting as you wanted it to be. While fun, it was still pretty pretentious. But nice choice on the beers guys and sweet glasses.

Pro: Ironically, one of the movers and shakers in the NEXT Church movement in the PCUSA, Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, is about to become the new Head of Staff at Fourth Presbyterian Church. What’s ironic about this is that this youth conference covered topics that many crave from the NEXT conferences. NEXT can’t do it all, and it shouldn’t have to, but this conference helped to fill in that gap from those who are part of NEXT or are longing for just a little more holistic ministry besides the young adult movement./Con: There seemed to be a good bit of evangelical bashing happening from some folks speaking. Look, I get it. If you came from that then it can and probably has been traumatising in some way. You found the light and you came over to the dark “progressive” side. But not everyone has that experience. I didn’t. I grew up with reformed theology in a conservative church in the middle of the suburban Bible-belt and I was never shunned, told I wouldn’t be loved or that there was something wrong with me.  Heck, they even helped pay for my Northern, uber-liberal theological education. For some its important to look at those other churches and say, “I don’t want to be like that.” But I think the point is that we should be looking at the churches and communities that are doing it right and instead say, “How do we be more like that?” I like to have an occasional evangelical bash once and a while in the privacy of my own personal circle, but there’s a point where the joke isn’t funny any longer and we need to move on.

Pro: Everyday Sunday. Christian music that’s not Michael W. Smith (He’s great and all but one can only handle so many of the same line repeated over, and over, and over, and over…). It’s good music and they were a group many of us had never heard about.

Everyday Christianity speaking at PYM2014. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Everyday Christianity speaking at PYM2014. Photo Courtesy of Shelley Donaldson.

Pro: There was some good practical advice in the seminars. Not so much in the larger group sessions.

Rev. Dr. Lib Caldwell talking about how to teach the Bible to Children so they don't have to un-learn it later in life.

Rev. Dr. Lib Caldwell talking about how to teach the Bible to Children so they don’t have to un-learn it later in life.

Pro: The resource room. You had folks like Ministry Architects, the Thoughtful Christian, and sparkhouse among others. The book resources provided by TC were great and a good selection. It was small but I look forward to see who else gets on board in the future.

Pro: Social Media. Look, anyone who isn’t your great-grandfather is using social media. And even he’s dabbled in it at some point. It was used well. The event was promoted on social media and it helped everyone stay connected.

So, there’s my list. There were some Cons, but more Pros. At the end of the day, this was a success. No conference is perfect. No conference like this has been done before. People came away with good, solid, positive things. Will I go next year? Yes. I look forward to it, wherever they hold it (although, I must admit, it was nice to have it just a mile or so from my apartment). This was not all of it by far. Visit the website, read the stuff there. It won’t be a waste of your time.

Nice job Fourth and JoPa. And an especially “good job” to Rev. John Vest. Not many can pull off a conference like this AND serve their incredible Holy Smoker barbecue at such a high quality and maintain their sanity.

Posted in #PYM14, blogs, Chicago, church, commitment, god, PCUSA, theology, Uncategorized, Youth Ministry | 2 Comments

word: (noun) something that is said; a brief remark or conversation, something that a person says; origin: (before 12th century) middle english, from old english

Today is a word dump day. “What’s a word dump?” you ask. A word dump is where you just let it all out, whatever it is. It’s a practice that my 12th grade english teach taught us to get us to write or a way to break through our writer’s block. I debated just doing it in Word or some other writing program, but then I thought it would be so much more fun to do it here. This specific word dump is about my thesis. Yes, I’m writing a thesis. I’m working on a Master’s of Theology (ThM), and my first draft is due in 2 1/2 weeks. It’s a theology paper on interfaith dialogue. It’s hard to focus since my mind has been on our Israel trip and also dealing with other stuff going on.

First, what drives me for this is the problem that so many interfaithers have with the issue of “evangelisation.” The issue that I have with it is that, for me, it means to convert someone. I think its supposed to mean that you are sharing the love of Christ and the message, but not intending to convert. Sharing the love of Jesus is not the same as converting someone. When you try to convert someone, you don’t honour who they are as a person. As a sentient being, they can make up their own minds, by convincing someone to become a Christian (however well intending we humans are), we don’t see the person as they are but as we want them to be. Oh, and did I mention that humans don’t convert other humans, God does. So, if there’s conversion going on, then that’s God’s work and when people take credit for it, then they are claiming to do God’s job. Now, does that mean people can’t be a part of that process? Not at all. People are totally part of the process.

Let me elaborate.

If someone decides to become a Christian, then they have a reason for doing so. Maybe it’s because others have shown the love of Jesus through their actions and they want to live like those people do. But when it’s like the scene from the movie, The Apostle, then it is not genuinely about the person but about another tack on the board. Now, you might be thinking, “look, in the Bible, Jesus says to go spread the message, bring people into the fold.” And you’re right. Jesus does say that. We often call it the Great Commission. It’s found in Matthew 28:16-20.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

But that was back then. We have to think about the atmosphere back then. When we think of Christians in the Bible, we often think of the general population. Think again. Christians were far and few between. They were considered a cult (not a punch drinking cult), but a cult. A small branch of Judaism that had broken off and was going rogue. They were trying to get numbers, they were trying to tell people, “Hey, Jesus is here! He’s fulfilling the promise that God made to Abraham!”

Think about Paul. Most people see Paul as the ultimate convert. Well, technically, Christians weren’t Christians back then, they were still Jews. Atleast that’s what they thought of themselves. This idea of Christian wasn’t really in existence, so Paul didn’t really convert, he simply saw the fulfilment of the promise that we now read in the Old Testament. So, that theory is out. Paul, not a convert. But, I will give him props for turning his life around.

Back to this conversion thing. What’s the point of conversion now-a-days? Why do we try to evangelise people and bring them to God? If we’re really Christians, don’t we believe that God loves everyone? Sure. Atleast, I do. Now, many Christians will tell you God only accepts those who live a certain lifestyle and fit into a certain mould. But that’s not true. God still loves Newt Gringrich, right? And he and many other politicians on both sides of the aisle have committed a lot of sins. So, God can’t only love a select few. Plus, take the creation story, God called all that God made good, right? God doesn’t pick and choose and if you think God does because it says so in Scripture, then, news flash: you’re reading stuff that a bunch of old dead men wrote a long time ago and then was rearranged and hand-picked by a bunch of other old dead men in fancy clothes. If you want to take the entire Bible at face-value, go right ahead. Just make sure and don’t eat the peas that were planted next to the tomatoes, or make sure you’ve brushed your hair, don’t go to church within 33 days of giving birth to a boy or 66 if you’ve given birth to a girl, and don’t mix your fabrics friends. Also, there’s some fun stuff about gang rape in Genesis and Judges, you could look into that too…

See how insane some of this sounds?

So, if God is loving to all humans, they why do we need to make them like us? God made them different. Why is that so bad? Why are we trying to undo what God already did? The point of conversion back then was to spread the message of the fulfilment and that the love of God was no longer for a chosen people but for all who whose to follow. It was no longer about who was circumcised and kept specific laws, because they weren’t needed after Jesus came. There was no need to have all these outward signs because God fulfilled God’s part.

When we try to convert another, we try to change them to what we think they should be. I’d like to try and convert my partner to see that its better when you put the dishes in the sink and not all over the counter so you can keep cooking vs. setting them all over the counter thus taking up counter space. But its’ not that simple. She has her reasons for doing it how she does it, and those are valid. Just like mine are valid for putting them in the sink. We are different people and see things differently sometimes, but we are still good people.

So, what does all this have to do with interfaith dialogue? It has to do with the problem of conversion when a person tries to be in relationship with someone of another faith tradition. Heck, it is hard when it’s even in an ecumenical relationship. Either way, when we come to the table believing that we much convert others to be like us, religiously, then we do not take serious their individuality and their own set of beliefs. We disregard them for who they are and we do not come to the table to have true interfaith relations but with an agenda. This is where we have to re-think what evangelism truly is for Christians.

When I hear evangelism, I also hear the word witness in my head. What does it mean to witness to someone? It means to share the love of Christ. Many people believe that when you witness, you give a verbal testimony to people. I like to think of it differently. When I witness to someone, the point is that I should never, ever, have to say “Jesus” or “God.” My actions and words should be enough that I exemplify Christ and what I have learned from the account of his life. If I’m going to mention Jesus or God, then it’s in response to, “So, why do you do what you do?” Then I can say, “Because I believe in Jesus and that’s what I’m called to do.” That is sharing the gospel. People should know that God loves them through the actions and lives of Christians. I do not feel like God loves me when someone tells me that God hates me because I am a lesbian. I do not believe that Jesus died for my sins when someone tells me I am an abomination. Way to be Christ-like folks. That’s not it. You missed the point.

Here’s the point: it’s not our decision who gets in at the end or not. That’s God’s job. So, please, stop trying to do God’s job for God. You are not God. Stop making yourself a false idol. Please. We will all sleep a little bit better at night.

Well, friends, that’s my word dump for the moment. You don’t have to agree with it. That’s not the point. The point is for me to get some thoughts out there so I can finish writing this thesis and process things. You don’t have to like it, I don’t really care. Maybe the arguments aren’t well written out and maybe they are SUPER flawed, but they are my thoughts and opinions.

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limbo: (noun) a place or state of restraint or confinement; a place or state of neglect or oblivion; an intermediate or transitional place or state; a state of uncertainty; origin: 14th century; middle english, derived from medieval latin

Yesterday an article came out by Carol Howard Merritt on the Christian Century website and made its way around the Facebook inter webs.

Last week, I discovered I failed another Bible Trivia Content Exam.

What happened you ask? Oh, I blanked. I blanked big time.

I mean, I was incapable of telling the story of Moses. I barely knew the names of the books of the Bible. Had you asked me 24 hours before hand, I would have given you perfect answers, because I knew them. But sitting across the table from two people (one via FaceTime over a phone) knowing that your ordination rides on the next hour’s conversation, you lose your shit. Or, at least I did.

When I left the meeting, I knew. I knew that my lack of confidence in myself had allowed me to simply shut down mentally and I couldn’t answer basic questions about the Bible that I had spent most of my life learning. As I headed back to the airport, I knew the phone call I would get in a week. I knew what they would say. And, I knew they would be nice and orderly about it, as all Presbyterians strive to be.

When the phone call came, I was prepared and I took the news in stride. But then a conversation began to take shape, and again, I lost it. I didn’t yell, instead I felt hot tears well up in my eyes and a lump grow in my throat. When told, “We think you should take more Bible classes to help prepare you,” I stopped the conversation. “Who’s going to pay for those? I already got the Master’s of Divinity and I’m getting a Master’s of Theology right now. Who’s going to pay for these extra classes?”


The problems I have here are the following: 1) I paid my own way through this. I paid for all the other ordination exams I passed with success from my own pocket. I paid for my seminary education (well, the part that wasn’t already covered), I paid for my books, I paid for travel to and from meetings between Atlanta and Chicago, I paid for CPE. I paid out all of the money for everything that was required of me. So, where’s my reimbursement check from the people who convinced me and led me to believe that I was called to this ministry? Is there some sort of compensation for paying for my psychological assessment? That was a good chunk of money, oh, and you can reimburse my church as well.  Is there some sort of compensation for those who are required to do more work and spend more money than those who simply glide through (and let’s be honest, many of them should not be gliding though)?

2) While I appreciate the chance to do an in-person test, maybe this should send up a flag? Maybe I am not called to ministry. My testers told me, “We really liked you a lot!” Great, thanks. I have lots of people who like me. I’m not in the business of getting more Facebook friends. I’m in the business of trying to get a job that I’ve been trained for. That YOU helped me train for. I’m in the business of “jumping through the hoops” that are the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordination system. More people liking me doesn’t help me get a job to pay off student loans. Someone liking me and wanting me to spend more money for classes I can’t afford because I can’t afford is only frustrating and gives me one more reason to look away from the church.

Sure, I sound like a snot-nosed brat, right? But, really, wouldn’t you in this place? How on earth are you supposed to take being placed in limbo by the people who claim to believe in your talents for something? A limbo that leaves you without the chance for jobs in a highly competitive market, and asks you to wait and pay out more money? Let’s also add on that there’s the added pressure of knowing that more than half of your denomination doesn’t want you in their churches because they “just aren’t ready for that” yet. Read: we like gays and lesbians in our pews, but not our pulpits.

It’s all very maddening.

So, back to the article. Merritt points to the place where so many of us in the process of ordination with the PCUSA find ourselves, in limbo. We are left to feel neglected, hushed of our voices, struggling, confined to jobs that are often times below our level of experience and training or not even in our field at all. Let me note, I have never felt neglected by the Atlanta Presbytery. But still, here I am, in the land of limbo.

Maybe this is my time to bow out. Maybe that’s what this is really about. Luckily, I have friends and family that support me, but at some point, you have to ask yourself, “Am I wasting my time? Should I be doing something else?” Who wants to be in their mid-thirties and still unable to get a job simply because of the PCUSA limbo?

I’ve always had issues with the PCUSA ordination process, and I don’t think those will ever go away. Now, I just have to decide, can I remain in limbo with the hopes of soon getting out, or do I leave, gracefully, and move on and learn how to live a life that no longer revolves around the church?

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Going Where Locals Can’t Go

January 13, 2014 – Jerusalem

Sunday morning began as any other Sunday morning would begin for many Christians. A wake up call from the alarm, breakfast and coffee or tea, and a dash to put on your finest clothing before going to church. The difference here was that we were making a few stops before visiting St. George’s Anglican Church. We had a mosque visit. And not just any mosque, but THE mosque in Jerusalem: the Al-Haram.


Entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Now, let’s put all of this into context. The Haram is the complex that includes the Dome of the Chain, the Dome of the Rock, as well as the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This complex (the entire complex is considered a mosque, technically), sits on the same platform site as the 2 temples once stood. Therefore, making this a hot-button place for Jews and Muslims, especially.  For Jews, this is a place that should rightfully belong to them (sound familiar?), and for Muslims, this is the place where the rock of Muhammad’s ascension into heaven took place. This is the space within the Muslim Quarter of the Old City that has been carved out for Muslims. Controlled by the Jordanians, this place is under lock and key to outsiders for several reasons. And sadly, because Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine is under lock and key to its own natural inhabitants, the Palestinians, even those Muslim Palestinians who have been denied legal status in their own homeland are unable to witness this place.

Dome of the Rock and Dome of the Chain.

Dome of the Rock and Dome of the Chain.

It is one thing to get onto the complex within the Muslim quarter of the Old city, but it is another to get into the Al-Aqsa. Somehow, our group was given special permission to enter the buildings and experience them, first hand. I can only describe them as breathtaking and moving. God is truly present in this space. To deny that is to essentially deny God.

Inside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Inside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

After our time in the Muslim Quarter, we made our way to church at St. George’s Anglican Church. Besides the biting cold, it was a service representative of the kingdom of God. People of all colors and from all over the world were present for one hour and 15 minutes.

After our church services and our lunch, we made our way through to Bethany, an old place that is, like everything else, Biblically referenced, and is in what many Americans would consider ruins. This is an Area “C,” an area that is controlled by Israel with no ability for the Palestinian people to govern themselves. Sadly, it is also a place where, while controlled by Israeli government, less than 8% of services are provided to the people despite their taxes being paid. No police, no social services like other areas, nothing. An intentional limbo outside of the wall build around Jerusalem.

Signage for occupied "Area A."

Signage for Area “A” put up by the Israel government to keep people out of Palestinian controlled areas under occupation.

Now, Bethany is not your typical tourist destination. It’s not even a place where tourists go at all. But, we had a date with Professor Dr. Mustafa Abu-Sway. A professor at Al-Quds University, a Palestinian University. Now, Bethany is not in Area “A” as you see in the sign above, but it is, as I mentioned in Area “C.”

Dr. Mustafa Abu-Sway

Dr. Mustafa Abu-Sway.

Dr. Abu-Sway told his personal story of being a Palestinian Muslim in occupied territory; a story that is heartbreaking. While some found it devoid of hope, others of us found it simply realistic in a situation where hope is hard to see.

As a young boy, Abu-Sway was born and raised as a child on the Mount of Olives. According to Islamic law and his mother’s love for her neighbor, he has a Christian sister, and despite the actions of the 6 days war in 1967, his mother kept an open house for all to come and go as needed. As a child he and his family fled to Jericho and were eventually smuggled back into Jerusalem just in time for the census. Left and right, he watched as Palestinians lost their citizenship to their homeland.

Now, let’s pause here and have a thought experiment.

Imagine that I return to the US after this trip. As I am walking through customs, with my partner waiting in the airport lobby, and I am informed that I no longer have citizenship and I cannot enter the country of my birthright. What happens to my bank accounts, my apartment, my family, my belongings, where do I go? If I have no identification then I cannot enter into another country or get onto another plane. My cell phone is no longer good. I have nothing except for the material things I carry with me and my God. That is it.

As Americans, we have no clue what that looks like, whatsoever. Nothing. And imagine you are a member of the people who are revoking my ID. How do you fight the injustice? Can you? How are you left in limbo when your group is the group who is responsible for something like this? (What I’m trying to get at is that not everyone wishes this and that there are two sides to every story. Right now, I am only focusing on one side.)

As Abu-Sway talked of his story and of the hope that is so hard to find, the hope that is nothing like what American Christians would think hope to be. We find hope in others who come to our aid. We know that at some point, someone will help us. When we realize no one is coming, that is when hope disappears. According to Abu-Sway as well as Cedar, the Christian Palestinian from Sabeel, hope in the young people is not present. There is no trust. And who can blame them? As Abu-Sway said, “what light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t see any light because there is no tunnel for us.” In other words, ‘where are those who will help us because so far, no one has.’

“The wall rapes our psyche on a daily basis,” claimed Dr. Sway. A wall constructed to keep out those who are deemed unworthy; a wall that is meant to demoralize and make a bold statement.

How do you find hope when no one comes to stop the rape?

Wall from inside a Palestinian refugee camp.

Wall from inside a Palestinian refugee camp.

At the end of the day, as an American Christian tourist, the wall reminds me of the inequality within this place. Now, you’re saying, “inequality is everywhere! Why are you only talking about this place? Why not Syria or other areas of the world?” Because, this is what I experienced first-hand. There are other blogs that talk about those subjects. And for now, so long as I recount my story, this is what I’ll be talking about.

As a tourist I was allowed inside walls that not even locals are allowed into. Not because it’s just that exclusive to get into, but because I am not a Palestinian but an American. My dollars go to give this country military support and support an agenda that I don’t agree with. The US gives around 1.5 billion dollars to Israel each year. Imagine what money like that could do in our own country.

I got to the other side of the wall because I am an American, an outsider.

Does it seem right that I should be allowed to go where even the locals can’t go?

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