Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Life Update

I have been blessed the past few months to spend time with one of my classmates, Leslie. She has quickly become one of my closest friends and favorite people at McCormick and Chicago. One of the reasons that I love spending so much time with her is because she challenges me to be a better person. The reason I mention this is because I am truly grateful for the support she, and others, gave me in January. As some of you many know, I decided to leave my field site. Although it was my decision to leave, I did not feel as though I had a choice in the matter. My time at LPPC had ended, and I needed to acknowledge it so that I, and the congregation, could move on. I entered the field site with excitement but also trepidation. While in Israel during July 2013, I realized that I did not want to be a pastor. I had been feeling that way ever since I first felt called to seminary, back at the beginning of 2012. But it was the honest conversation I had with my friend on the dig, Alison, that made me accept, not what my call is, but what it is not. To be candid with you and with myself, I cannot clearly name my sense of call the same way I was able to name my sense of call to seminary. But I do know that God is not calling me to parish ministry. Some (well, many) people have told me that I have gifts for ministry. Although I take that as a huge compliment, possessing the gifts for ministry is not the only factor. I am fortunate to be blessed with the ability to do many things. The empathy that is a part of me is not something that is exclusive for ministry. Many of the gifts that people see in me are because I am the middle child (who has played the traditional role for years); because I am a 4 on the enneagram (I could talk for days about the enneagram, which measures one’s motivations); because I am the product of my parents, who are both kind and friendly people (regardless of what my father might say about himself); because I enjoy making other people happy (sometimes to my own detriment) and many other reasons. Many of these personality traits are often found in pastors. However something else is often found in pastors: a call from God towards pastoral ministry. 

That is not something that I have within me. I am still working out what exactly my sense of call is (does anybody really know what their call is?) and that is where Leslie has come in handy. Leslie is called by God to ministry. She has an incredible gift of forcing me (and others) to be brutally honest with themselves. Leslie does this by asking the hard questions people normally avoid or are afraid to ask. The two of us have joked that we are 'soul friends’, but I honestly believe this to be true. I believe that God places people in our lives for a purpose and Leslie is a part of my life because I need her unique, challenging, supportive, honest and sincere form of friendship. 

This is not to say that other people at McCormick have not been helpful. This is not to say that my family hasn’t been supportive. On the contrary, the support I received from my family and close friends at McCormick during January was incredibly life-giving. I do not quit things and I felt as though my decision to leave LPPC was me quitting. I sometimes still feel the twang of guilt when I pass the church or hear news of the congregation. I am not sure if I will ever be able to say that I feel completely guilt free about my decision to leave. But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was the right decision. Leslie always tells me that “guilt is a useless emotion”. And I cannot help but agree: guilt does nothing. If you have harmed someone, guilt doesn’t ease the pain they feel. Guilt does not help you mend broken bonds. White guilt is something that has done all kinds of harm in the past. In order to help someone, guilt is not a tool one can use to make a difference. It merely forces the guilty party to feel bad about themselves. It might even prevent him or her from fixing what is broken. Guilt has rendered people immobile and useless. I wish I could say that I refuse to feel it, but I cannot. However I have decided to take my guilty feelings, when I have them, and channel those emotions into something good. Changing a sense of guilt into a productive emotion takes time. 

I learned a lot about myself: my preferred style of confrontation and the ways in which I enjoy (and do not enjoy) being managed or talked to by a supervisor. I learned that my education is my responsibility - not someone else’s. In the same way, I learned that my faith journey is mine, and mine alone. I learned that saying “no” is not only acceptable, but something that everyone needs to learn how to do. And I learned that churches are not perfect. One of the reasons that I decided to do my field site with LPPC was because I wanted to work in a church that was different from Fourth Presbyterian Church. I wanted to work with an older population of the congregation than the children or youth. I wanted to learn how small churches are run from the inside. I was less interested in preaching, leading service and leading a Bible Study. I did these things because I felt that I needed to. Unfortunately, I do not think the congregation was ready for an intern such as myself. 2 weeks after I started, LPPC’s new pastor began work. Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back now, I realize that an intern should not have been placed at a church that was going through such a difficult change. A mentor is supposed to help the student find a place in the congregation. But if the pastor did not have a place yet, how was I also going to make one? LPPC has had an intern every year for decades, and I think they continue to have one out of tradition, more than a sense of wanting to teach and bring up a new pastor. This was all coupled with the fact that I did not truly want to be there. Over the summer I realized that I was not called to parish ministry, but felt as though I needed to honor my commitments to LPPC by completing the field site. It culminated in a series of very tearful (on my part) meetings between myself, LPPC and the administration of McCormick. My sense of loyalty is very strong, which is one of the reasons this decision was so difficult for me to make. I felt like I owed the congregation something, and needed to stay. But what Leslie, and others, helped me realize is that my sense of loyalty to myself needs to be fiercely strong as well. My sense of loyalty to my personal faith journey needs to be stronger than that of a group of people I barely knew. By the time of these meetings in January, I was starting to question my faith. It was becoming hard for me to be in church without feeling like an impostor. I felt like my presence in church, as a seminary student intern, meant that people could assume or guess my call. Sunday morning became my least favorite time of the week, and I dreaded going to my field site. 

THAT IS NOT OK. 

Luckily I had an incredible support network that told me so on a regular basis. They talked with me, let me cry, listened to my concerns and, most importantly, validated my feelings.

I could go on and on about this, but I will not. What’s done, is done. I will not graduate as planned in May. The field studies office was unwilling to let me complete a second field site for only the spring semester, so I will repeat the process next school year. I have not yet been assigned my next field site, but I have high hopes. I am going to work with an agency that will teach me the grant writing process. I believe that my BS in Business coupled with my MA in Ministry makes for a very unique set of skills. I hope to put my talents to use in the non-profit sector. This decision has complicated things (I am having to look for a part-time job in Chicago instead of looking for a full-time job located anywhere) but I know that it was the right decision. I have been able to enjoy myself this semester in a way that would not have been possible if I was still at my field site. 

Although many people have understood my reasoning and supported me during this process, there are those who have not understood and those who (upon reading this) will think that I childishly acted out of anger. It is very difficult for me to hear that someone is disappointed in my decision. However, I am not disappointed in my decision. If I had gone through everything that I did at LPPC and decided to stay because I wanted to graduate on time, then I would have been disappointed in myself. As always, I am excited to see what lies in store for me in the future. But I am also focusing more on present-day events. I don’t know who said it…maybe it is from a movie, but a recent quote that I have been telling myself is, “Life is what happens when you’re waiting for it.” This experience has empowered me to take control over my education, my happiness, and my life. It is not what I expected, but following God’s call can rarely be predicted. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stumbling Blocks

Friends,

I was honored to preach at my field site (Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church) on Sunday. Below is a transcript of my sermon. And, of course, the cartoon that I referenced. For it only being my second sermon, I actually wasn't that nervous! Classically, I didn't really give myself enough time to really develop my ideas, so I could have done better. But I think I got my point across. I really appreciate all of the support that my home church, McCormick, and the LPPC congregation gave me on Sunday!

Peace,
Sarah

Luke 18:9-14: Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

This might be one of the only times there was a projector in the sanctuary. I had a friend send me a cartoon a few days ago, that I think is perfect for this parable. Cyanide and Happiness is an internet cartoon, and one of my favorites. Now, I’ll be honest. Not all of their cartoons are “Sunday morning sermon” appropriate. But this one was just perfect! It is a 4-panel cartoon, with two friends talking.
Person 1: “I want to lend my friend money to help him out, but I’m worried he’ll spend it on drugs. Hmm…what would Jesus do?”
Person 2: “Say a bunch of stuff, then be misinterpreted by millions of people for the next few millennia?”
Person 1: “That’s not what I meant at all.”
Person 2: “So we’re off to a good start.”

Jesus is speaking to people who “have convinced themselves that they were righteous and looked upon everyone else in disgust”.  A Pharisee and a tax collector are going to the temple to pray. The Pharisees were the religious leaders. They were held in high respect by the public and indeed, were very much the public image of the religious class. Now, as someone who studied accounting in undergrad, I have a very different idea of what a tax collector is today compared to those in the first century. A tax collector could walk up to anyone on the street and tax them for what they were carrying. These men were typically Jewish individuals, working for Rome, and often would overtax people so they could keep some of the money. I don’t know about you, but I do not like the sound of that. The tax collectors were often put down and considered to be vicious, vile and degraded.

The argument could be made that both parties in this parable are correct. I think depending on the day you’re having, you can identify with the Pharisee or the tax collector. Days when I feel like I’ve really got it together, I can easily thank God by saying, “I am so glad I am not like them!” But those days when I feel as though everything is going against me, all I can do is act like the tax collector and beg for God’s mercy.

It is easy to interpret it in a straightforward manner. If you have even the slightest knowledge about Jesus’s life and the message he came to share, then seeing the Pharisee as Jesus’s nemesis is easily done. And the tax collectors were hated in Jesus’s day, again, another easy target. We see the surface-level messages of “be humble” or, “don’t be like the self-righteous Pharisee”. Which could be a valid interpretation of the text. But then we are left with possibly taking away the message of, “thank goodness I’m not like those people over there. Because I’m here in church, actively listening to Scripture, and have learned to be humble”.

This parable is a trap. We’ve been set up by the author of Luke to take the easy road – be humble and not boastful. Don’t think too highly of yourself, and you’re on the right path. I like to think of the author of Luke as a director who just looooooves plot twists. Someone like M. Night Shyamalan, who directed The Sixth Sense, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Now honestly the twist in this parable isn’t one that’s going to knock you out of your seats, send you running from the pews or leave you feeling like you don’t know whether or not you’re living in The Matrix. But the message, like so many of Jesus’s parables, is a twist nevertheless.

So what is going on here? Before we get into all of that, I just want to define a few terms for you. Because if I learned anything from high school debate, it was that you have to define the terms you’re going to use or else people might get caught up.

Righteousness – mostly concerning moral and ethical conduct. Historically, are you seen as doing the right thing in God’s eyes? Are you following the laws?
Justified – when one has been declared or made righteous in God’s eyes. This is more than just following the laws. I see it as are you following the spirit of the law, not just the words. Only then will you be justified: and be declared righteous.
When translating the Greek, you end up with 2 sets of words – just and right. Both of these words share a common root in the Greek, which can also be traced back to a Hebraic concept of the Old Testament – God’s gracious and covenantal relationship to the people of Israel. This root word was also used in the everyday Greek of the New Testament times to imply whether or not one was following the standard laws laid out in the Old Testament.

What is the real concern here? Being a Pharisee/tax collector or praising too loudly?
Everything that the Pharisee says in Luke is true. He is righteous, according to the laws, the standards that Luke establishes and even by Jesus who names him as righteous in this story. The Pharisee has set himself apart by faithfully adhering to the law. In verse 11 when he thanks God for not making him like everyone else, he is basically holding up his life to the 10 commandments. He fasts during the week, he tithes, he prays to God. The Pharisee doesn’t understand that the source of his righteousness is from God. What the Pharisee is confused about is not how he should be living his life, because he is already living a life of righteousness.

The tax collector’s prayer is not one that we would immediately think is the right one. He doesn’t say that he is quitting his job, or going to help those who he cheated. The tax collector hasn’t tried to start a better life, just admitted the one that he is living right now is not ok. The tax collector knows that his life is not a righteous one. He stood at a distance from the temple, not wanting to go too close. The tax collector was correct not because his prayer was humble, but because he knew that he hasn’t done anything to claim righteousness. The tax collector knows that righteousness is a gift from God, and did the only thing he could: ask for forgiveness and mercy. He depended on God.

This parable is being told to people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked upon everyone else with disgust. Finding righteousness in yourself is the problem.  The Pharisee is not claiming righteousness that he doesn’t possess, but he is claiming that all of his righteousness is from his own personal actions and choices. The Pharisee might be praying to God, but he is really thanking himself for making the right decisions.

One’s own accomplishments are not to be praised and are not enough stake a claim to righteousness through. That is through God and God alone. But the Pharisee takes it farther and, like the people Jesus is speaking to in this parable, is haughty enough to despise others within the context of prayer. 

Here’s the real crux of the story. The “Haves” vs “Havenots”. Instead of thanking God for his righteousness and approaching the tax collector as an equal, the Pharisee places himself above the tax collector in prayer. This goes against everything that Jesus taught. He came to break down the divisions that were put into place. This man, who was righteous, was not understanding. This is not ok in the eyes of Jesus.  At church there are still insiders and outsiders. We define them in different ways, but they still exist. I know that I am guilty of it. If I hear about a conservative Christian church doing something that I think is inappropriate or against the message that Jesus taught, I find myself saying, “Thank goodness I am not like them!” These divisions exist in conservative and liberal Christianity. We have just renamed the Pharisees and tax collectors. But there shouldn’t be these divisions. When Jesus died, the curtain separating the 2 groups was torn in two (Luke 23:45). There are no divisions before God. And prayer is not the place to only further instill these divisions in our head.

Back to the story - the Pharisee left and went to his home, maintaining his righteousness. He was wrong, but still followed the laws. So he had his righteousness. But the tax collector left the temple justified. Here’s this word, justified. His prayer was transformative. Jesus named him justified because he put his trust in God, not himself. The Pharisee left the temple the same as how he was when he came. But the tax collector was lifted up by Jesus and declared to be equal in the eyes of God.

This parable is really about shifting the attention we put on ourselves and our own actions to God’s great grace, mercy and love.

So what? How can we apply this parable to our lives today? This parable is perfect for stewardship season. How are you serving the church? Are you serving to maintain your righteousness? Are you serving so that you will be exalted by others? Do we serve to put ourselves in the ‘righteous’ group?

Now, I cannot really speak for this congregation, but I know that I have had problems in the past with accepting leadership roles because I wanted the spotlight. I wanted people to look at me and say, gosh. Look how many things Sarah is doing! About a year ago, I was beginning seminary. I didn't come to seminary blindly, but I also didn't come with the wealth of knowledge and experience that I assumed my classmates would have. So I was extremely nervous. I wanted to make a good impression and thought the best way to do that was to be involved in the culture of the school in a way that I was not involved in in undergrad. When I was nominated by my classmates to be a deacon representative during orientation, I was extremely flattered! However I didn't spend much time prayerfully thinking about accepting the nomination. I just thought about how much I wanted to be in a leadership role and accepted. Once a deacon, I almost immediately went for the most public position: the co-moderator. I cannot honestly say that I took on this role for selfless reasons. On the contrary, they were extremely selfish. I wanted people to put me in the righteous category, not the tax collector category. I was the person who was able to take a full load of classes, work 2 jobs and run the deacons. But I was trying to maintain my own righteousness. I wanted all of the glory. I loved the way that people treated me differently. But I should have been working to tear down the divisions instead of working within them.

While we are in the midst of the stewardship season, I want to challenge you to think about ways that you try and maintain your own righteousness. Are you serving because you feel called by God? Are you serving because you want to be seen as righteous and holy in the eyes of others? Or is your serving rooted in love? What are the ways that you can flourish, and help others to flourish? To be justified, like the tax collector, we need to remember that it isn’t just about doing the right things all the time. Our actions are not enough. We need to base our lives in trusting God’s mercy, seeking God’s love and remembering to love our neighbor. Don’t stumble over the easy interpretation or answer. Place your trust in God’s mercy, because no one is excluded before God.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why I needed seminary (and why we all need it)

Friends,

I had a major breakthrough yesterday during class. I know that it has been a while since I have blogged (clearly this isn't something high on my priority list), but I've had this revelation and wanted to share it with you.

Some of you might know that I have applied to have my degree program changed from Master of Divinity (M.Div) to Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM). This would mean that I am graduating in May 2014 instead of May 2015. The MAM is for people who desire a theological education, but are not planing on entering ordained ministry. I do not feel called towards ordained ministry, and do not see a future (at least at this point in my life) where I would need a M.Div instead of a MAM. For those of you who might remember, I had a very strong call experience. In February of 2012, I knew without a doubt that God was calling me to McCormick. Discerning whether or not that meant going into ministry was still up in the air. But I felt called, and (almost) immediately followed.

My time at McCormick has been life-changing. And that is why God called me to this place.

I have never been the most introspective of people. I find it much easier to make the practical decision rather than the one that I want or feel called towards. I am easily swayed by the wants or opinions of close friends and family. I don't want to spend time thinking about what I want, because that is often harder than picking the option that "makes sense". I can only think of one point in my life where I chose the option that didn't really make sense, and that was my YAV year.

In class yesterday, we had to look back at our life and think of important events, people and places that have shaped us into who we are as Christians. I realized that up until mid-way through my YAV year, I didn't think about that. I knew who was important in my life, and I knew the places that made me feel closer to God. But I hadn't sat down and thought about the trajectory of my life up until that point. Honestly, it was (and still is) just easier for me to think about the future rather than think about my past. Because when I think about my past, I think about my mistakes.

Seminary has been a place where I have been forced to think about my past. Yes, I have been asked to think about mistakes. But I have also been encouraged to think about the positive events and aspects of my life as well. And these were class assignments, not just "suggested activities" to do on our own time (aka I would not have done them unless it was required for class). Every class I have taken has challenged me. It was difficult for me to share these aspects of my life in class. My entire "schooling career" up until this point consisted of regurgitating information or applying learned theories to different scenarios. Never was I asked, beyond primary school, what I thought, what I felt, or how was I affected by the subject matter. Applying my own experience to a topic was a completely foreign idea to me.

As I said previously, every class at McCormick has challenged me. The content, along with my professors and peers, has challenged me to do what I didn't want to do - process my life up until this point. Many people come to seminary after years of ignoring God calling them to ministry. I happily and eagerly came to seminary, thinking that it would just be a few more years of schooling. Easy peasy! Had I known then how emotionally challenging some of my classes would be, I might not have come at all. Had I known that I would be willingly sharing pieces of my life with almost strangers, I definitely would not have come. Had I known that seminary would completely change my hopes and dreams for the future, I would have turned and run away.

It is true, most people come to seminary because God has called them towards ordained ministry. My friends are learning the skills that will serve them in their future (and for some, present) ministries around the world. But I have come to realize that I needed seminary so that I could discover who it is that God is calling me to be in the world. I needed seminary so that I could be changed. I needed the McCormick community to help me realize that our past is not full of mistakes. I needed my friends to show me that it is ok to pursue your dreams, no matter what they are. I needed seminary to inspire me to radically shift how I live my life.

Some people might say that I am called to ordained ministry. But I cannot say that. And to pursue it at this point in my life would feel like a lie. I would be lying to my classmates, the Church universal and most importantly, to myself. Seeking ordination is the decision that makes sense. It is the next step after seminary that I am expected to make. But if seminary has taught me anything, it has taught me to be radical. To follow God's call, not what people want or expect for me. To seek a position in ordained ministry would be to ignore everything that I learned over the previous year.

Honestly, I don't know what the future holds. Unable to break all of my habits, I am in the process of looking for a few things to occupy my time post-graduation. The most exciting one would take me away from Chicago, to a new place and new experiences. It is sad to think about potentially leaving all that I have built here in Chicago, but exciting to dream of new possibilities. But I am trying to focus on today. I am trying to put my attention on the things that are a part of my life right now.

I have imagined where I would be if I had gone straight into graduate school after undergrad. I would most definitely have more money, but I don't think that I would be better off in any other way. I absolutely made the right choice coming to seminary. It wasn't the easy choice and it isn't the easiest path to be on. But as they say, the best things in life don't come for free.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bring on That Fire

This is my manuscript from the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church when I was home.

Luke 12:49-56
"I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

There is fire and brimstone language in these passages. Even in my beloved Common English Bible translation! Why is this language there? The typical image we hold of Jesus is the Prince of Peace, why now is he saying that he came to bring destruction? These are the questions that I want to address this morning. There is an old joke about seminary students preaching. Maybe you’ve heard it before. It is the beginning of the school year, and to help introduce her to the congregation, the seminary intern has been invited to preach. The congregation is excited to hear her sermon, because they’ve taken on the role as a ‘teaching church’ and have a seminary intern every year. Just before the sermon, one woman leans over to her neighbor, who recently joined the church, and whispers, “Here it comes, the seminary intern is preaching. It’s time for our annual lecture on what is wrong with the church!”

This is not what I am trying to do this morning. It just was a coincidence that Luke 12:49-56 was the lectionary reading for today. J

N.T. Wright uses a story about Beethoven to help explain just what this passage is doing smack-dab in the middle of Luke. Sometimes when Beethoven was performing for audiences he liked to play a trick on them. (Especially if he thought that they weren’t completely paying attention or if they weren’t “interested enough” in music.) Just after he played the final notes of the piano movement, he would bring his entire arm down on the keyboard. The harsh sound normally shocked his audience, and he would laugh at the slightly cruel joke. Wright explains that this passage from Luke belongs because there is always pain found in beauty. What Jesus did for humanity is a beautiful thing, but it was a painful death, and watching Israel reject him must have been a painful thing for God as well.

Jesus asks the crowds, “why can’t you judge the present times as well?” In this passage, Jesus tells the crowd that change is coming (meaning his death and resurrection), but also the hostile Roman take-over that happened in 70 A.D. Luke was most likely writing around this time. He is telling the Church universal that Jesus has charged them to interpret current events and address issues that arise. Clearly Rome isn’t an issue for us today in 2013. It isn’t a new thing to suggest that the “Rome” of our time is technology, greed or power. Intolerance to change: to accept those who are considered ‘the other’ is something that many churches struggle with. In some Christian circles, divorce is not an option, so abused spouses are told to go back to their abuser by their pastor, priest or deacon. I would argue that these viewpoints are a “Rome” of our time.

But today I am not talking about sexual and domestic violence. Instead, I want to talk about denominations. Specifically Christian denominations.

There has been a magazine article circulating amongst my Facebook friends (specifically the Presbyterian ones) for a few weeks now. I didn’t read it until after I started working on this sermon. I can’t help but think that the article and our passage from Luke are connected.

The article I am talking about is from Relevant Magazine. For those of you who have never heard of Relevant Magazine, it is a Christian lifestyle magazine for that 18-35 year old audience. Their tagline is “God. Life. Progressive Culture.” I discovered them last year via their podcast. They interview musicians and authors. One of my favorite episodes was when they interviewed Rob Bell about his book, Love Wins. The article I read recently is entitled, “The End of Denominations? Why we need to stop dividing the Church”. Tyler Edwards, who wrote the op-ed piece, considers denominations confusing. Normally when you meet someone (especially if that person is a conservative, evangelical Christian) one of the first questions they will ask you is about your religious affiliation. “What is your denomination?” is a question I’ve been asked more times than I can remember. Edwards is trying to address the issue as to why there are so many different denominations. He writes,

“We divide the Church like an OCD kid with a bag of skittles. Rather than enjoying all the different flavors, we compulsively sort them. The Church was created to unite followers in Christ under His mission and banner. We are supposed to be one body with many parts, but what we have become is a stockpile of different parts. We have churches instead of the Church. We have uniformity instead of unity. Apparently, we can’t have people who believe different things about Biblical issues come to the same building to worship […] God. That would just be chaos!”

I can’t help but agree with him! It wasn’t until I started seminary that I realized just how many denominations are out there! According to the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, there are 217 Christian denominations in America. But that excludes the nondenominational churches, of which there are 35,000 congregations! We focus more on our differences in worship style and theology than what we agree on. This is not to say that we should only have 1 worship style. I do not think that people should all worship in the same manner – I think being comfortable with the style of worship is extremely important. I tend to hold straight to the Presbyterian line and prefer stoically standing still while singing hymns accompanied by an organ in a key slightly too high rather than raising my hand during praise songs led by a praise band. There is nothing wrong with either style of worship! People simply have preferences. But I worry that sometimes those preferences get in the way of being an open and loving church, accepting of all styles of worship.

Early on in my first year of seminary, I was having a conversation with one of the professors at McCormick about church being an open and accepting place. Now, there is a difference between theology and worship style, I know that. And I realize that a church’s theology is typically what makes certain people feel unwelcomed. But the fact that some people do not feel comfortable in church breaks my heart. No matter what denomination you choose to affiliate yourself with, Jesus called all of us to the same mission: which does not include ostracizing ones that we’ve pegged as ‘the other’. Her response when I told her that struck me as odd. She told me, “Sarah, everyone shouldn’t be welcome in each and every church. Sometimes you just need to leave and find a different congregation.” I was shocked! Personally, I think that anyone should be welcomed into any church, no matter what. If tomorrow I decide that I want to attend church from now on at a Pentecostal church, and they turn me away or make me feel unwelcomed because of who I am, what I believe or where I have previously worshiped, that is not ok! I understand and encourage the need and desire among Christians to worship God in different ways. We are all different people and I am not suggesting that we should change Christianity into some sort of bland, middle of the road religion. I think that our differences are what spur healthy debates and fuel change. But I do not understand how differences in belief about Jesus (was he fully man, fully divine or both), or differences in communion (what exactly happens to the elements during communion), etc gave us as Christians the right to basically segregate ourselves. Especially while worshiping the one who called us to break down those barriers.

I have another story, this one happened just a few weeks ago. As some of you may have known, I was on an archeological dig in Israel in July! It was an incredible experience, but one that I will probably not repeat. I basically dug in the ground for 8 hours a day. What I really enjoyed was getting to know my fellow dig participants during our break time each afternoon. We were mostly a group of archeology students or conservative, evangelical Christians in PhD or Masters-level programs. I was the only PCUSA participant, and probably the most liberal Christian there. (There were people more liberal than myself on the dig, but they were all atheists.) One afternoon someone asked my what my denomination is. I was not thrilled at this question, because I knew what was coming. I proceeded to tell him that I am a Presbyterian (USA of course, not PCA). He then launched into a rant about how the Presbyterian Church USA was far too liberal, they are lost, they’ve gotten away from God’s message, etc etc. I’ve heard this all before, of course. It isn’t the first time I’ve been told these things. It wasn’t until he told me that I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself a Christian that I really got offended. When did it become ok to tell someone that? When in our Christian history did this start? What I am really worried about is how the different denominations have segmented Christianity and turned brother against brother.

Jesus said that he would bring division instead of peace. Well, in my opinion, Christianity is pretty divided. In verse 49 Jesus said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth.” Which some might interpret as the fire of God or even imagery to suggest that Christians are called to battle – to fight violently against those who do not believe the same thing as us. But the story does not end there. Fire is an interesting subject. In ancient Greek and Roman traditions, fire is associated with the qualities of energy, assertiveness and passion. There is a Greek myth in which Prometheus actually takes fire from the gods to protect the helpless humans. And he was punished for this action. Often fire of the Old Testament is a symbol of destruction, particularly destruction because of God’s judgment or anger. In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But Luke is not the end of the story. Fire in the book of Acts is not destructive or consuming. Instead it is purifying, fire is a manifestation of God, the third part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. It is a symbol that shows the old ways are destroyed to make way for the new, for the New Kin-dom of God. Things always seem messier after the division, before reconciliation. The division isn’t the end, just like fire is not simply a symbol of destruction. We are in the midst of it still, because, like verse 57 says, we don’t judge for ourselves what is right. How can it be the right thing when Christians cannot worship God together, in the same place?

I am afraid there will always be people who are racist, who think that women shouldn’t have the same rights as men, who believe that what side of town you are from determines what you can do with your life. I know these people exist. But I do not agree with them, and honestly I do not think that Jesus did either! Who did he invite to the table? The people on the outside of acceptable society; He came to bring change. Everyone is worthy. Everyone. And again, this is not to say that everyone should become like-minded. Differences are good. If we want to continue to adapt and adjust to the changes around us, we need to have new ideas. Think Tanks always have people of different backgrounds and professions. People who think differently, when working together, come up with wonderful things! Tyler Edwards (who wrote the Relevant Magazine article) makes this point as well. He writes,

“Jesus called different types of people to be His disciples because He intended for the Church to be diverse. God made us different. That’s the point. Without the tension of diversity we are not challenged to grow and to constantly dive into His Word. When everyone sees everything exactly the same, there is no healthy conflict. Instead of iron sharpening iron, we get complacent spiritual social clubs. God didn’t create the Church so we could all start acting like one another. It was created so we could all start acting like Jesus. “

It is too easy nowadays to ignore people of different denominations, or worse, to spew hateful things at them in person, during sermons, radio talk shows, online forums and on websites. We are meant to work together as Christians. Denominations are not working together. Theology is important, but Jesus didn’t call us to debate theology to the detriment of helping others. Jesus came to change the world, and we are called to be a part of that change. He said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth.”
So all I can say is, “Bring on that fire!”

Amen?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Tel Abel Beth Maacah, Daily Life

Greetings friends!

I fully intended on writing weekly blogs whilst on the dig, but that didn't happen. (Story of this blog, am I right?) The dig ended on Thursday, and right now I'm in Jerusalem, waiting in the hotel lobby for the shared taxi to take me to the hotel.

I'll try to summarize as succinctly as possible my first (and most likely, last) dig experience. If any of you thought, like I did before I arrived at the dig site the first morning, that I would just be digging in the dirt for 7 hours a day from 5:00 am - 1:00 pm, you were correct. It's true, I definitely learned things, but don't let anyone fool you into thinking that it isn't just digging in the dirt. Yes, I might sound a little negative about the experience, its true. Perhaps I just don't have the "archeology bug" like others have. Even though I was ready to be done with the digging after day 3, I still had a great time. I met some truly amazing people on the trip and had a wonderful time exploring Israel with them.

Here's a basic outline of our daily schedule (and maybe you'll understand why I was too tired to blog for the past few weeks):

4:00 am -- Alarm goes off.
4:01 am -- Snooze
4:09 - 4:35 am -- Refuse to wake up, continue to hit the snooze button
4:40 am -- Finally acknowledge that I have to get up. I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I made the night before at dinner and possibly have time for a cup of coffee (instant coffee, which is terrible).
5:00 am -- Be on the bus that takes us to the dig site (we referred to it as a Tel, so from here on out, I'll be calling it that).
5:20 am -- Arrive at the Tel, proceed to walk up the hill and avoid the surprises that were left the day before from the cattle and horses that roam the fields.
5:30 - 7:00 am -- Dig in the dirt. Sometimes you're lucky and find something cool. More about that later.
7:15 am -- Tea break. Oh, glorious tea break.
7:25 am -- Ortal, our area leader, "Ok guys, back to work!!"
7:30 - 9:15 am -- More digging. Counting down the time until breakfast. This is typically the hottest part of the day. The sun is up now, but the wind hasn't picked up.
9:15-ish am -- Breakfast!! I think I cheered shamelessly everyday when Ortal announced breakfast.
9:16 - 10:00 am -- Lounging in the shade, eating tuna and hardboiled eggs. More instant coffee. Sometimes cookies.
10:00 - 11:30 am -- Digging. Sometimes my friend Adam would sing for us. Those were the good days. Especially when it was songs from The Lion King.
11:30 am -- JUICE BREAK! (That's me shouting it because I'm so excited for another break. Like I said, shameless.)
11:45 - 12:30 pm -- Digging in the dirt, just digging in the dirt! What a glorious feeling, I'm covered in dirt. (Please feel free to sing that to the music from Singing in the Rain. That's what I did as I typed it. You're welcome.)
12:30 - 12:50-ish pm -- Time to clean up. If you're like me, you think ok, that means we put the tools away, yeah? And then we leave? Right? We wouldn't possibly SWEEP THE DIRT OFF THE GROUND. Oh wait, that's exactly what we did. I got pretty good at it too. I should probably update my resume. Special skills: sweeping up dirt. We also took this time to clean up the bulks. (When you see pictures, the bulks are the walls between squares. Don't worry, I'll post pictures soon so this will all make sense.)
1:00 pm -- The bus comes at the bottom of the Tel to take us back to the kibbutz where we are staying.
1:20 pm -- Mad rush to the pottery washing station to be the first ones in line to fill up your pottery bucket. We have to wash all the pottery we find, but they soak in water overnight. We take the buckets of pottery from the Tel and fill them with water before heading over to lunch.
1:30 pm -- Lunch. The food was good, not great. I ate a lot of roasted chicken, rice and veggies. Like, everyday for lunch.
2:00 pm -- Take a shower. Until now, you've been covered in dirt since about 5:30am when we arrived at the Tel. The shower is a highlight of my day.
2:00 - 4:30 pm -- Lovely break time. Sometimes I would nap, or go to the pool, or just hangout outside in the shade reading. I started a book club, more about that later as well.
4:30 - 6:00 pm -- Pottery washing and sorting. We scrub the dirt off the pottery from the day before, and sort all the pottery we washed from the day before. So on Wednesday, we are washing the pottery that was collected from the Tel on Tuesday, and sorting the pottery that was collected on Monday, and washed on Tuesday. The Area leaders and Directors of the dig would sit with us and explain which pottery shards are important, and which are not. Pictures later.....
7:00 pm -- Dinner. This meal was typically terrible. The kibbutz where we stayed didn't cook any of the food, but had someone else do it. So by the time we got the food, it had typically been sitting for an hour and was soggy. Warm, but soggy. I ate a lot of cabbage.
7:45 - 8:45 pm -- Lecture time. These were typically over my head but I enjoyed the ones that the staff gave.
8:45 pm -- Make your PB&J sandwich for the next morning. Its a long morning if you don't have a sandwich before getting to the Tel.
9:00 - 10:00 pm -- This was when I typically went to bed. There were some days it was earlier (especially if we didn't have a lecture). By this time of the day, I was normally pretty tired and didn't want to stay up doing anything else. Also the internet was slow because there were a lot of people on it trying to Skype or chat with friends/family from home.

So yeah, that was my daily schedule! I have to go get on my taxi now, but I'll post more when I get to VIENNA. I am very excited to see Vienna! Send me tips/places to check out if you've been there before.