Dance in the Graveyards

Yesterday morning, I woke up early so that I could watch the Royal Wedding and text my mom and sister. Did anyone else watch? I was prepared to be amazed by the dress and the ceremony, but what really blew me away was the sermon. Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached and I’m not sure that anyone knew quite what to expect. It was certainly a change from the norm! He spoke about love, about the power of love, and also the power of fire. Fire, he said, makes it all possible, and on this Pentecost Sunday I am increasingly aware of the power of fire. 

Bishop Curry reminded us that if we were to harness the power of fire, we could do anything, and I sat on my couch wondering what kind of message this was for the church. If we were to harness the power of this holy fire, this Spirit given fire, if we were to truly live into this call, what is there that we can’t do?

I wondered what it would look like for us, individually. What does harnessing the power of fire look like for you? The fire in your gut, your calling, your passion—if you’re to harness that so that you might live it out, what does it look like? Isn’t this what we’re to live into? What is a life lived with no passion? What is a life lived without love?

The two passages we read this morning remind us of both sides of the Spirit. She’s powerful, mighty, and unexpected. She moves in mysterious ways, pushing you to things that might leave you wondering how exactly you ended up in whatever position you’re in. She’s fierce, she’s strong, she’s not something to mess with. That’s the Spirit we see in Acts. Can you imagine what was going through those disciples’ heads? All of a sudden they can’t speak to those they were speaking to. Their friends are all speaking different languages, nothing is as it once was, everything is different, eveyone thinks they’re drunk! Imagine their frustration, their confusion, perhaps even that bittersweet feeling when you realize that life won’t be what it once was. And yet, there is still something to celebrate. The Spirit moves, dances into our lives. 

We’re told in the Pentecost story that our “sons and daughters shall prophesy; your young men shall see visions; your old men shall dream dreams.” This Pentecost day, we’re released from the fears and challenges that hold us back. We are reminded that all are tasked with sharing the good news, no matter language, nor race, nor culture, nor age. We are reminded of the power of our young people. Part of why Confirmation Sunday is today is this reminder of the power of our young people. Today we’ll be recognizing Zach and Cooper and Alison, each of whom have reminded me of the importance of listening to the young leaders in our midst. These young people are our now, not just our future. These young people are our church TODAY, not just in ten years. And they have visions and dreams for what our church can be. I encourage you to listen to the young people in our midst. Hear their ideas, value their wisdom—share your stories, and hear theirs too. 

I was grateful that the Romans passage was the lectionary reading this week. It’s a favorite of mine, particularly during weeks like this one has been.  It highlights another side of the Spirit, a quieter side. We’re told, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Sighs too deep for words. How many of those have been uttered this week? How many on Friday morning, when the news came across of the shooting at Santa Fe High School? When the news on Friday night of the shooting at the high school graduation in Georgia? How many sighs over the loss of those lives? In those moments, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

This passage reminds us that we are released from the need to know the exact thing to say at any given time. What’s important about us is not always our words—in fact, sometimes are words can be a mistake. On Friday night I watched my favorite movie, Steel Magnolias, and cringed at the same part I always cringe at: Annelle talking to M’Lynn after Shelby’s funeral. For those who haven’t seen the movie in awhile, Shelby is a young mother who dies after her body rejects a kidney transplant. It’s devastating, particularly for her mother. After the funeral, M’Lynn’s best friends come to be with her at the graveside, and Annelle offers the opposite of good pastoral care: “Miss M’Lynn…it should make you feel a lot better that Shelby is with her King…We should all be rejoicing.” You sit there watching this scene thinking “Annelle! JUST STOP! Just stand there, just be! You don’t need to say anything!” It’s painful, each and every time you watch it. When you are standing with someone deep in grief, sometimes the thing to do is just be. Sigh. Breathe. Let the Spirit move, interceding with sighs too deep for words. We are released from the pressure of needing to know exactly how to take on the pain and grief of the world.

On this Pentecost Sunday, I’m struck with the reminder that these disciples are likely still deep in throes of grief. Their teacher has been crucified, and then came back. And then left again, as they watched. Their emotions, their understanding of how things were supposed to happen, the patterns of life, have been tugged in so many different directions over a pretty short span of time. As I imagine this using my own frame of reference, in today’s context, I wonder if their hearts weren’t still stuck in that graveyard, unsure how to move forward. Sure, Jesus told them what to do—but then he left! He’s gone! They haven’t even really gotten to process all of this, and now they’re supposed to just move forward? I imagine them sitting together, wondering what to do. Maybe one would speak up, only to trail off as his idea of how to move forward seems too overwhelming, too much to do without Jesus. Maybe they’re all just staring at one another. Grief still there, raw. Those feelings of helplessness, knowing the world will never be the same.

Easter already came. Jesus returned, he came back to the disciples, but to me, Pentecost feels like another resurrection day. We are reminded that the Spirit is still on the move, still working in our midst. Nothing can keep us from spreading the word of God to the people of God—we have been given the gifts of languages, of relationship, of community that surpasses all boundaries. We have been given the tools so that we might call out the good news, easy or not. We are to call out injustice, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Pray for our world, trusting that the Spirit will intercede when our prayers are not what they ought to be. Friends, this is good news!

We are a resurrection people, called to be open to the Spirit’s movement so that we can share God’s love with the world. But the Spirit doesn’t always make her presence known—sometimes we must admit that we are living in the mystery of our faith. And yet, we belong. We belong to the mystery. We belong to this Spirit that moves in our midst.

On Wednesday night, my favorite band came to DC. I was able to go to the concert, and when I tried to explain to Sheri and Bryan what it was like, I had no other description that “it was my church.” Delta Rae is southern, based out of North Carolina, and their music is a unique blend of gospel/rock/country/bluegrass that I haven’t found elsewhere. One of their songs is called Dance in the Graveyards, and it was the perfect Pentecost prep for me. The chorus goes like this:

I don’t want to rest in peace

I want to dance in joy

I want to dance in the graveyards

And while I’m alive,

I don’t want to be alone

Mourning the ones who came before

I want to dance with them some more

Let’s dance in the graveyards

Isn’t that us? The disciples were forced out into dancing and community. Their community expanded with the help of the Spirit, as they were launched into a whole new way of being church. The time for mourning had gone, and the realization became that sharing the light of Christ with the world was the best way to continue to live with his presence.  

Sometimes, friends, it feels like we’re stuck in the graveyards. Our world is hurting. We are confronted by injustices, particularly against our siblings of color, each and every day. All too often we see our children being killed in places that should be safe. It feels like we are in the graveyard. But this day, this day is the reminder that the Spirit still moves. The Spirit is moving and we are called to dance our way out of this broken and fearful place, to be examples of the Spirit on the move. On this Pentecost Sunday, let’s live in the light of the Lord. Let’s dance. Let’s sing, let’s work, let’s play, in the name of God! May it be so for all of us. Amen.

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You, Beloved, Are Dust

Today I began my Lenten practice of writing three pages every morning. The gift is in the choice: there are no rules other than the number. I can write about anything I choose, it simply has to take up three pages in my notebook. Not surprisingly, I found myself reflecting on Ash Wednesday and all this day holds.

Today is my favorite day of the year, the day all are reminded that we have been created from the very same material we will return to: dust. We, beloved children of God, are dust. From dust we were formed and to dust we shall return.

We were breathed into being by our God, held together by nothing but the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the community of the Spirit. We are beloved dust, called to do the work of God that might cause us to get a bit dustier along the way. The Isaiah passage for the day reminds us that to do God’s work is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.

This morning while drinking coffee with a dear friend, I mentioned that my head of staff was worried that we weren’t going to have enough ashes tonight, that the palm fronds didn’t make quite enough. She said, “There are always enough ashes! Why worry?”

Always enough ashes. Always enough dust. I wonder though, what happens when all that’s left is the dust? What happens when the world feels so broken, when the weight of the pain and sorrow is too much to bear? What happens when the light becomes dimmer and dimmer until you wonder if it was ever there to begin with?

I returned to Isaiah in the midst of my wonderings, and read the rest of the passage for today. “The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

We are called to do the work of the Lord that leads us straight to the dustiest, darkest places of our world. But we are never called to be alone. We are never called to walk this journey without the community that’s holding us all together. We don’t have to find the waters that sustain us on our own.

Beloved, you are a child of God. Called to serve the Lord in whatever way you know how. Held together by God’s love, grace, and community. Formed from dust, that same dust you will return to. Cherished. Called. Loved. Dust.

What a time to be a woman.

I love the state of Alabama. On any given weekend, I’m more likely to be wearing a shirt with a print of Alabama than anything else. It is my home. I can tell you how to navigate nearly every road in Clay, AL, can tell you about how the best best Presbyterians are in a 3 hour radius from Birmingham, and will never be able to separate that state from my image of home.

I love Alabama even though I spent all of high school being called a “baby killer” because I was pro-choice. Not pro-abortion. Pro-women being able to choose what to do with their bodies. I love Alabama even though I was asked how I could call myself a Christian when I said I’d vote for Barack Obama. I love Alabama even though I had a total of 3 friends who would back me up when people started to inform me that I was point-blank wrong for my opinions. And still, even after the pain of those moments, the pain of having to leave in bad circumstances, still I love Alabama.

If you need any fun facts about the state, I’ve got you. If you want someone to talk to you about football, I’m here. If you need reassurance that even the Trump supporters are wonderful people who would drop anything to help you out, I could talk for hours. One of the most important people in my life disagrees with me on just about everything related to politics, and that’s the same person I would call if I needed help. He would drop everything and come rescue me if I needed it.

I love Alabama. I will love Alabama until the day I die.

And despite that love, right now I can’t think about the state of Alabama without feeling sick to my stomach. Roy Moore has been impeached twice in my lifetime. He’s in one my religious studies textbooks as an example of what separation of church and state is not. And I’ve been able to overlook those things. I don’t agree with his politics. I don’t agree with his theology. I think Roy Moore would probably tell people I was going to hell if we ever had a conversation about faith.

I cannot overlook the five women who have come forward with their stories of the ways that Roy Moore assaulted them. I cannot overlook that their stories show a pattern. I cannot overlook that they were teenagers. Below the age of consent. Brains not nearly fully formed. Teenagers being manipulated by a man who held a whole lot of power.

Here’s the thing about knowing someone has more power than you: it’s paralyzing. You know good and well that your word means nothing against the more powerful person. You are worthless. Your experience doesn’t matter because you’re just a girl who just wants some money. Or maybe you’re just a women looking for a dollar. You’re lying. There’s no way you could be telling the truth. It’s all the same. You don’t matter because you’re a woman with less power than the man who took advantage of you.

I love Alabama. I love its people. I defend its people to those I encounter in a state that goes blue–“I know Alabama seems backwards, but the people. You just can’t beat the people.”

I can’t defend this. Over the last few days, I’ve realized that there are people in my life who would vote for a pedophile before they’d vote for a Democrat. The word of five women who have similar stories, who have been checked out, who have been vetted–the stories of those women simply don’t matter. People I know, people I care about are telling me that the experiences of their daughters, of their nieces, of their friends DO NOT MATTER.

What a time to be a woman from Alabama. What a time to be a woman.

Lord, in your mercy…

When I was fourteen, I went to church every Sunday. My dad was the pastor, and the expectation was that I be there. Sunday School, worship, then youth group at night–I was there for it all. One might think that I wouldn’t go to church those weeks that my parents were out of town, but no. I was there. Church was my safe place, the place where people liked to ask me about school, my friends, what was going on in my life. I was surrounded by people who cared about me, and so I went to church even when my parents weren’t there.

The sad reality of this time in our country is that shootings aren’t unexpected or surprising anymore. “Oh, another shooting. God, when will we ever do something about this? When are we going to learn?,” is my common reaction, and then I move on. Mass shootings are commonplace. Babies were killed in their classroom at Sandy Hook. Young people in need of a safe space were killed at Pulse Nightclub. Nine churchgoers in Charleston, SC, were killed in their church basement after they welcomed a stranger in their midst. 59 people were killed in Las Vegas at a concert. You learn to move on because otherwise your existence is one of nothing but anger.

But yesterday’s shooting was a punch in the gut in an unexpected way. When I got home from the church where I work, I sat down to read the news and found the following tweet from Associated Press:Messages Image(1021463999)

“Pastor’s wife says she and husband were out of town when Texas church was attacked but teen daughter is among the dead.”

Teen daughter is among the dead. When I was fourteen, I went to church when my parents were out of town because that’s what you do. It could’ve been me. It could’ve been my sister. It could’ve been the children that I teach about Jesus every single week. It could’ve been any of us.

But you know what we’re going to do about this? Nothing. We will do nothing about yet another angry white man with a gun killing simply because he can and it’s not hard. We will do nothing but “pray for the victims” and then we will move on because we live in a world where the NRA matters more than the lives of children. We will do nothing but make excuses for this white man. President Trump has already begun, saying, “This isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level.”

I live with incredibly high anxiety and am prone to depression. Are you scared that I’m going to shoot you now? Furthering the stigmatization of those who live and struggle with issues surrounding mental health is not helpful or fair.

If a person of color had committed this crime, it would have immediately been called terrorism. We would already be hearing about the need for stronger immigration laws, the need to “build that wall,” the need to keep out those who aren’t like us. But a white man with a gun? That’s a mental health problem. Not a gun problem.

I’m afraid of angry, entitled white men who have learned from the example that our nation sets that murdering people with a gun is a consequence free act. Because clearly it’s not their fault. It’s not a gun issue, remember? It’s a mental health issue. It’s not their fault.

What are we going to do about this now? Is this the shooting that will break the camel’s back? God I hope so. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.

God Shows Up

IMG_5941A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.

Exodus 3: 1-15

Romans 12: 9-21

Yesterday I spent most of the day at the National Book Festival. It was my idea of heaven—being in the same place with a whole bunch of people who share my love of reading! You really can’t beat it.

The best part of the day was meeting Kate DiCamillo, the author of Because of Winn-Dixie. Show of hands, has anyone read it? It tells the story of India Opal Buloni, a preacher’s kid who has just moved to Naomi, Florida, because her father has gotten a call to a new church. When the book opens, Opal is so very lonely. That is, until she adopts a dog—Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie opens her life to new relationships and teaches her about growing up. The story is completely beautiful, one I’ve returned to time and time again, even though I’m well past nine years old, the recommended reading age.

Surely I’m not alone here—don’t we all return to the stories that we see ourselves in? Maybe if not a book, a movie. Or music. A relationship in which you feel the most like yourself. I could feel Opal’s loneliness when I picked Because of Winn-Dixie up to read right after my dad’s new call meant a big move at a not so convenient time in my life. We return to the stories that teach us something new every time we read them. In that moment when I was seventeen, Opal and Winn-Dixie taught me that happiness and sadness go together in life, and those experiences open you up to the particular feeling of melancholy, and make the joys in life that much sweeter.

In a way, this story that we read today of Moses and the burning bush feels similar to Because of Winn-Dixie. Not so much in terms of content, but in familiarity. It’s a story we’ve been told time and time again. It’s included in children’s picture books and story bibles, one of the greatest hits of the Old Testament. I’m pretty sure there’s even a Veggie Tales episode about it, though I could be wrong about that one. And really, what’s not to love? It’s the call of Moses! The beginning of a huge arc in our narrative of faith.

In this story of Moses and the bush, God shows up in a big way. A big, firey, you best stop and pay attention to me kind of way. And Moses does. He stops. He pays attention. He’s afraid of the task that God asks of him, but he stops and he pays attention and he listens. He asks the question that I’m sure any of use would have. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

I can imagine that there were many more questions in Moses’ mind. Maybe something like, “Who am I to do this? I’m just Moses. Just a shepherd. I am a nobody. I long to be nobody. God, don’t you know the things that I have done? Don’t you know that I am not worthy of your call? God, I promise, I am not who you want.”

I love God’s response. God doesn’t say, “You are the one for this job because you are the most righteous of all men. You are perfect, Moses! You are my absolute favorite. You are the strongest, smartest, most intimidating person I could think of. That is why you are the man for the job!” Nope. That’s not what God says. In fact, God doesn’t really give Moses a reason. Instead, God’s response is this: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

This thing that Moses has been called to do isn’t about Moses at all. It’s about this powerful God who sees these people created in God’s very own image hurting, oppressed, and bearing the weight of a mighty injustice.

I wonder how many times God had tried to get Moses’ attention. It seems like a burning bush is a pretty big first attempt. How many times had Moses chosen to look the other way when faced with an injustice such as the Israelites living in slavery? How many times had God tried to get his attention? “Moses,” God might’ve whispered, “Moses, do you see what’s happening? Moses, this isn’t okay… Moses, I didn’t create my people for them to hurt like this.” I sometimes wonder if God maybe got a little irritated with Moses. Shouldn’t Moses have known that this deep injustice wasn’t okay? Without God having to appear as a burning bush?

In Bridges to Worship, I often ask the children a few open ended questions so that they learn to find themselves in the stories of our faith. I ask them, “Who is in this story and what happens to them?,” and, “How is this story different from the time and place in which we live?,” and “Why do you think this story is important?,” “When would be a good time to remember this story?,” and we finish with, “Where do you see yourself in this story?”

While I was preparing for this sermon, I decided to ask myself the same questions. I admit that while I was reading this story and letting the words wash over me, I could feel a sense of familiarity sneaking in. Our final hymn, Here I Am, Lord, is meant to go with this story of Moses’ call, and the verses come from God’s point of view: “I have heard my people cry… All who dwell in dark and sin, my hand will save… I have borne my people’s pain… I have wept for love of them… I will give my life to them… Whom shall I send?”

“Whom shall I send?,” God asks. Moses answered this call. He trusted that God would be with him on the journey and I’d say that the willingness to let go of your own reservations and trust in something bigger than yourself is half the battle. This image of Moses answering God’s call has stuck with me for so long, in part because I’ve always loved that Moses is an unlikely hero—it’s relatable. Were I to ask the children where they see themselves in this story, it would be completely understandable for them to see themselves as Moses. God is asking that Moses do a very big thing. God wants Moses to go and ask Pharaoh for something we all know that Pharaoh won’t want to do, and with that comes the requirement that Moses no longer overlook the injustices that people are facing. It’s so much easier to turn away and not pay attention when people are hurting, especially if we don’t experience what hurts them in the same way.

I think it’s fascinating that in the scripture, we’re told that Moses is standing on holy ground. It is a sacred space that should be treated as such, for it is a place where God showed up in a big way so that Moses would notice, pay attention, and react. Where do you see the sacred spaces in your life? My answer has always been Montreat in North Carolina—going to youth conferences there for my entire life has made that little valley a place where I feel God like no other place, but it is always a place where I am challenged, pushed, and forced to pay attention to things that I’m sure God has been trying to bring to my attention for much longer than that one week of the year. Maybe your sacred space is the running trail, or within a relationship that challenges you (in a good and healthy way).

I wonder if you’ve ever had a sacred space that feels a little quirky, like it’s not supposed to be a sacred space, but it’s a place where you’ve noticed God. In thinking about the question I ask the children, “How is this story different from the time and place where we live?,” I found myself also thinking about how the story is similar to the time and place where we live.

“I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings… I have come down to deliver them…,” God says to Moses. God says to us. It was only three weekends ago that a mass of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, so that they could “unite the right,” or at least the white right. It was only three weekends ago that we watched as a man drove his car into a crowd, killing a young woman, because he was so very convinced that he was better than the people who were there doing a counter protest. He was so very convinced that his life was better, that the fact that the people there counter-protesting were also children of God, children created in the image of the same God who created him, that he killed someone.

Stick with me here, but I think that we might one day consider Charlottesville to be a sacred space. Not because what happened there was sacred—please do not hear me say that. But rather because it was a place that God showed up. The reactions to Charlottesville were incredible—our country was angry because we know that we are better than that. We are better because of our diversity. We are better because we claim to know that we are stronger together as a community, regardless of the color of our skin. But what happened in Charlottesville made us pay attention to what we have been hearing from communities of color for so very long. The rally in Charlottesville never should of happened. And perhaps if we had been listening to the cries of God’s oppressed children before now, it wouldn’t have happened. But I truly believe that God used that horrible day to get our attention—God was there in the clergy that stood between the counter protestors and those who were there as a part of the rally. God was there in the people who tried to make sure that folks were staying safe. God was shouting to us that day, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings… I have come down to deliver them… Whom shall I send to set my people free?” Whom shall I send? When I think of the burning bush these days, I see the image that many of you may have seen of the clergy holding hands and standing vigil. Standing between hatred and love. Standing in the midst of fear and pain. In preparation for this sermon, when I answered those questions that I ask our children, I realized that I think that image is our burning bush these days.

Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that we are to live in harmony with one another, hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. If our burning bush was Charlottesville, the flooding this week in Houston has reminded me of what we can be when we are following these teachings. In the midst of Charlottesville and its aftermath, I was afraid that we were being overcome by evil, but watching the reactions to the disaster of Houston has helped me see that perhaps we are more than what we are at our worst.

Friends, my prayer for us all is that we may be paying enough attention to what God is trying to say to us that we answer the call before God has to get our attention with a burning bush. May these words from Paul be true for us all: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” May it be so for all of us. Amen.

Grace Remains

A link to the video of the serve (audio cuts out every now and then, but it’s fun to see it all): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQy_v0WoKcM.

Texts: Psalm 139; Matthew 20:1-16; 1 Peter 4:12-19

At YAV orientation, we sang a lot of music meant to carry with us during our year of service. The song I return to most often is a very simple arrangement of Psalm 139, one of my favorite psalms. As I began preparation for this service, it seemed fitting that the day’s psalm was Psalm 139. This psalm never ceases to remind me that I am fully known, as myself. A line of The Summons, our next hymn, asks “will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?,” and Psalm 139 is the reminder that hiding is pointless—we are known, and we are loved, as we are.

And with this deep comfort of being known comes the reminder that we are called. We weren’t created and then left to figure everything out on our own, despite what we, or at the very least I, sometimes convince ourselves of. We have been called to use the gifts that we were created with to do God’s sacred work. Those gifts, naturally, look different for every person. The children in Worship Play are reading a book called The Day The Crayons Quit, which tells the story of a box of crayons who go on strike. They’re tired of always being used in the same way, or in ways they don’t feel suit them, or of not being used at all. They all write letters to the little boy who uses them expressing their irritation, and Duncan meets the challenge of using his crayons differently so that they feel like their offerings are joyfully received.

And isn’t this what God does with us? We have been given these gifts to use in ways that we find life-giving. And so begins the journey of our lives. Where do we go for our gifts to make a difference? What do we do? Who do we talk to? How do we know if it’s the right thing? In YAV world, we consider these questions to be part of our “discernment conversations,” one of the pillars of the program, but they are questions that everyone asks, and I’ve started to believe that no one truly knows the “right” answer, or even that there isn’t one “right” answer.

Is the “right” thing to do to work in the Radcliffe Room every Sunday morning? Yes, for some people. Or is the “right” thing to do to be a tutor for Community Club? Yes, for some people. Or maybe the right thing to do is to take a year off from whatever “the plan” was and serve for a year as a Young Adult Volunteer. At least three people in DC thought that was the right choice. One of the gifts of this year has been to witness so many people serving God by serving the people of God in so many different ways. I have been around so many people doing God’s sacred work for God’s beloved people, in small, easily overlooked ways.

This year has not been what I expected it to be. I didn’t anticipate a Women’s March, or the opportunity to participate alongside so many of you in the huge variety of protests and marches that have become more and more common in the last six months. I didn’t imagine that my love of singing with others would return after so many years of singing in choirs once I was welcomed into the community that gathers around the piano to sing in the Radcliffe Room every Sunday morning. I didn’t expect the deep pain I would encounter as I listened to those who have made requests from our Benevolence Fund, or the ways that their stories would stay with me. I expected to work hard, but I am surprised time and time again by the ways that this work feels more and more sacred.

Growing up in Alabama, my peers were primarily Southern Baptist, not Presbyterian, and I was always a little impressed at their ability to quote scripture directly. Bible Drills were not an activity in my Sunday School classes, but there are certain verses of scripture that I have memorized during times in life that I needed words to return to. Verses 11 and 12 of Psalm 139 are two of those:

If I say, “surely the darkness shall cover me,”

and the light around me becomes night,”

Even the darkness is not dark to you;

The night is as bright as the day,

For darkness is as light to you.”

I often feel that we live in a world constantly threatening to be covered in darkness. And yet, even the darkness is not dark to God. The night is as bright as the day.

I thought of these verses as I read through the other scriptures for this day, as chosen by the lectionary designed for the Presbyterian church’s college ministry. In the Common English Bible, the 1 Peter passage reads like this: “Don’t be ashamed if you suffer as one who belongs to Christ. Rather, honor God as you bear Christ’s name… Those who suffer because they follow God’s will should commit their lives to a trustworthy creator by doing what is right.” I appreciate this translation for a lot of reasons, but particularly for its use of “Don’t be ashamed.” I am struck by how often our culture teaches us to feel shame for suffering. Surely we’ve all heard it: “If you had a more positive outlook, you wouldn’t feel this way. Just think good thoughts!” Or, “She has such a great life. I don’t understand why she can’t just be happy.”; “If you had just kept your body healthy, you wouldn’t need health insurance!”; “If you had just made better choices, you wouldn’t be homeless!”; “If that man would have just listened to that police officer, he wouldn’t have been shot!”

I don’t believe that God ever intends or wishes that we suffer. Suffering is simply a part of being human—we live in a broken world, and in brokenness there is suffering. But Peter’s words remind me that in our suffering, we still belong to God. And that belonging, belonging that is like no other, is worth honoring.

Lately it has felt easy to get trapped in the darkness of the world. Fear runs rampant, greed is everywhere, hearts are hurting, violence seems to be the go to answer for so many problems. The common goal is to improve our individual lives at the expense of others, to make things “fair” instead of just. I see this illustrated in the parable Jesus tells in the Matthew passage we read today. The landowner finds the number of people he needs for the day, and they agree on a wage. Four more times the he goes to the marketplace, and each time he sends more people seeking work into his vineyard. When it comes time for the day laborers to be paid, he pays those he hired at 5pm the same amount that he pays those he hired the first time he went to the marketplace. I love that the text says that those he hired earliest in the morning “grumbled against the landowner”—I can just imagine it, “Are you for real right now? This guy is not serious. We’ve been working all day. I mean, yeah we agreed on this amount, but we didn’t know the people who only worked for an hour would get the same amount!” And the landowner, rather than ignoring their grumbles, says to one of the laborers, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Friend. Friend, he calls this day laborer whose very livelihood is in his hand, I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. I imagine, when hearing this story, not the frustration of the early hires, or even those hired at 9am or at noon. I imagine the anxiety of those who had been standing in the marketplace all day until the landowner hired them at 5pm. Waiting, hoping that someone would hire them. Perhaps these folks had families, had responsibilities that they had to take care. They were waiting and waiting, never giving in and going home even when it seemed as though no one would come. “Surely,” I imagine them thinking, “surely an hours’ worth of work is better than nothing. It won’t be much, but it’s better than nothing.”

I like to imagine their surprise when they are paid the same amount as those who had been working all day. Their gratitude that someone could recognize that they were struggling, that they needed the help of a day’s worth of wages, that they were people, people who needed other people in order to survive, just as we all do. Did they deserve the same amount of pay that the people who had been there since early early in the morning did? I don’t know. If we’re talking about what’s “fair,” then I guess they don’t. But do any of us ever get what we deserve? No, not really.

I feel like I’ve probably told most of you that one of the pieces that brought this year’s YAV community together is movies. Ben and Cody, the other YAVs, felt at the beginning of the year that I was uncultured when it came to movies, and insisted upon my watching such classics as The Sandlot, Air Bud, and all of the Star Wars films. They had great success converting me into a lover of random movies that I missed out on as a child, and it was a great community building activity for a house of mostly introverts. We’ve spent many hours watching movies together, and were excited to be given a movie theater gift card earlier in the spring. We decided to go see Wonder Woman, which I was sure I wouldn’t like, but was willing to try because it seemed like a fun time with the boys.

Imagine my surprise when I fell in love with a superhero movie. We sat in the third row of the theater, and I was completely engrossed in a film all about finding light in a world full of darkness, of recognizing the gifts of others, of living into the gifts that you have been given and have nourished throughout a life. Diana, princess of the Amazons, has never encountered the grey area between good and evil. She is determined to defeat the god of war so that humanity can return to the goodness it was intended to be, convinced that destroying one force could make that difference. As she prepares to leave the island where she grew up, her mother tells her that humanity does not deserve her. And still she goes.

Again and again in this movie, we see Diana offering grace upon grace to those she encounters. When one of the men in the group she’s traveling with suggests that he’s not an asset to the group because of his inability to take a shot in a battle the day before, Diana says gently, “But who will sing for us, Charlie?” Instead of finding his value in his skills in war, she recognizes the piece of him that shines light in the midst of darkness. Wonder Woman is about recognizing that every person is wrapped up in this world of darkness and light. And what we get is not about what we deserve, because it’s not about what we deserve, it’s about what we believe. She tells us, “I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

Wonder Woman reminded me of the grace we are given over and over and over again. Grace given to us by a God who knows us completely, whose blessings overflow upon us even in this world of darkness. Grace given to us by a God who calls us to be of the light, shining into a world that can feel so very dark. And isn’t that a thing to celebrate? That even in the midst of the suffering that we all encounter, even in the midst of brokenness, even when we feel lost, like we’ll never be able to take a breath, even then… Grace still remains. We are called to be people of the light, living abundantly in gratitude of that grace. May it be so! Amen.

Homesick

Today is one of the most important Sundays of the year. It’s the first Sunday after the 4th of July and that means it’s the start of Montreat Youth Conference Week 3. 1500 youth and their leaders have rolled through the Montreat gates (or perhaps around. No need to bring back #MakeMontreatGateAgain.), bringing their energy, excitement, and passions with them.

As far back as I can remember, I have been giddy on this day. It’s one I look forward to all year—Montreat is the place in my life that feels most like home, and when I pass through those gates for the week I know that I’m going to be with some of the greatest people I know.

I knew going into this YAV year that I’d miss Montreat this summer, and even that this particular week wouldn’t be easy. But I didn’t expect the deep ache I’d feel knowing that all of my people are in my favorite place and I’m not, an ache that I can’t identify as anything other than homesickness.

Catherine and I started going to Montreat with the youth group when we were practically babies–Catherine still had to take a nap in clubs (she’s still bitter about that). My summers are marked by Youth Conference themes, theme songs, and the normalcy of seeing the same people once a year. Montreat was, and is, home.

Sometimes I think that Montreat is how I, a preacher’s kid who has seen some ugly stuff in church world, made it through life still loving the church. The weeks I spent in that thin place were the weeks that I was reminded that I had pastors, freeing my dad to just be my dad. Those were the weeks that I knew with full certainty that I was surrounded by a group of people who would love me no matter what. As a rising senior in high school, Montreat was the place where I realized how hard it would be to move away from the only home I could remember, and it was with the circle of people that I’d trusted and counted on for so long that I could allow myself to feel the weight and pain of that move. As a graduated senior, I stood in Anderson Auditorium on the last night and was surrounded by people who reminded me that I was never going to be alone as I left home to journey through the sacred mess we call life.

Montreat and the people I associate Montreat with have only become more important as I have gotten older. Sometimes I laughingly tell people that I use summers to recharge from the craziness of the academic year by exhausting myself through youth trips. I leave things like the Montreat Middle School Conference or the High School Conference ready to sleep for days. And yet, I’m energized, ready to take on new passions, and so assured of my place with those I love that the physical exhaustion doesn’t really matter.

It’s been a long time since I have done a summer without at least one trip to Montreat, and I’m not really sure I remember how to do it. I miss it: being reminded to be gentle with pews that are older than my grandmother, the feeling of the freezing cold creek water on my toes, the sound of 1500 youth and adults actually singing together, feeling silly (and not caring!) during energizers, the peace of an early morning run, even the way that your towel never really dries.

More than that, though, I miss sitting on the porch of The Huckleberry with mint chocolate chip ice cream and catching up with my family (the ones I chose and the ones I was given), laughing so hard that I worry my stomach will never feel the same, being reminded that nothing is so horrible that some time with your people can’t make it seem a little better, crying both because of life’s beauty and also it’s brokenness, and simply being in a beautiful place with some beautiful people.

This week, my body is in DC, but my heart is in Montreat. If you need me, I’ll be the one singing Come Thou Fount under her breath, trying desperately hard not to think about what people in Montreat are doing (because, let’s be real, I have the Youth Conference schedule memorized at this point), and reminding herself that not going to Montreat is not the end of the world. For those in Montreat–sing loudly, do Wavin’ Flag with much gusto, drink a lot of coffee from the Drip, enjoy some mint chocolate chip ice cream, and stick your toes in the creek… And know that there’s no where in the world I’d rather be than with you.