Psalm 130

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord hear my voice!  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” Verses 1-2a, 5-6.

I felt drawn to this Psalm this morning.  There is SO much going on in the world.  Covid continues, wildfires, so much bad climate news, Afghanistan, earthquake in Haiti, flooding in TN, and the list goes on and on.  Then there are the personal stories of new cancer diagnoses, losing loved ones, and other heartbreaks my friends and family are facing.  Sometimes it all feels like a lot.

A few years ago I was able to take the Enneagram and participate in a training.  I learned that I am a 4w5, the Individualist + Investigator, sometimes referred to as “the free spirit.”  Part of the strength of being a 4 is being comfortable with the entire spectrum of emotions.  If you need someone to sit with you in your pain, I am your girl.  However, a 4’s sensitivty can also be overwhelming, and it is easy to get lost within our own self and be self-absorbed.   

It is easy for me to get overwhelmed with my feelings.  I rarely watch the news except for the weather.  I read it on my phone, and that seems more palatable than seeing images.  Still, I easily let myself sink into despair. 

The opposite of despair is not happiness, but hope.  Sometimes I am afraid to hope.  I don’t trust it.  However, I trust God, and my hope is in the Lord.  It is not a Pollyanna optimism.  It is not a blind trust that means I can go back to being self-absorbed and enjoying all my privileges.  It is a hope that stems from my belief that humans were created in God’s image and good.  That we will unite to do the right thing.  That one small step of action on my part is something I can do to be proactive and is worth the time and effort. 

However, Covid has also shown me “total depravity” side of the human spirit.  We can be selfish, mean, and uncaring.  We do not love our neighbor the way God intended.  We care more about our own personal comfort than others.  We do not want to give up one bit of our own comfort or pleasure.  We are so afraid of losing something, that we are rigid and lack compassion for other’s needs or strife.  If we are ok with how things are, or we have suffered and come out on top, we expect others will be able to do the same.  We lack imagination to put ourselves in others’ places.  Or worse, we do not want to imagine, and expect that they have the same advantages and opportunities that we have. 

I hope in the Lord.  But I am not making any vacation plans, because I don’t want to be sad again when we cancel them.  I hope in the Lord, but I also try to read perspectives different from my own.  (Normally, I would advise meeting others, but I am extra cautious about that in light of Covid).  I hope in the Lord, and I am trying to stop using single-use plastics.  It is harder than I thought it would be.  I hope in the Lord, and  I am hoping to learn more about the Afghans who will be coming to Minnesota and ways I can help.  I hope in the Lord, and I wear my mask. 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

Rest a While

I am weary. Are you?

Jesus calls all of us who are weary.  Jesus promises us rest.  Jesus provides us a safe place where we can share all of the burdens that are on our hearts.  Jesus invites us to take a break and renew our strength and our spirits so that we can get back to work. 

I can’t help but wonder if God has used and is using this time of pandemic to help us change.  We have opportunity to look at the way things were pre-pandemic, and decide what we miss and what we don’t miss.  WE have the opportunity to change.  As we begin to return to some more “normal” ways of life, we can ask ourselves:  What do you want to leave behind from the pre-pandemic world?  What have you learned this last year and a bit that you want to keep doing or carry forward?   Then looking bigger than ourselves, what do we want for our community?  What work do we need to do so that our community is a safe place for everyone?  What justice work do we need to do on behalf of our siblings? What work do we need to do to make God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven? 

One of my favorite authors and speakers is Brene Brown, and she says, “it takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.”

Rest is necessary for action. We need to strengthen our bodies, minds, and spirits.  We need to rest in Christ. 

When we encounter Jesus and the disciples in Mark 6:30-34, the disciples have returned from their journeys.  Jesus had sent them out two by two. They preached.  They cast out demons.  They anointed with oil.  Now they have re-gathered as a group, and imagine the stories they have to tell! Imagine how proud they must be of all they had accomplished!  I can just hear them planning out how they would tell Jesus and the others what happened, and who would get to tell which part of the story. I can just imagine how excited they were as they returned!

Jesus’s response to them is, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”  Though the disciples were on a “high” from telling their stories, you know that fatigue of the trip is going to follow soon.  That initial burst of energy will fade as weary bones, tired feet, and hungry bellies takeover.  Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.  Take a load off.  Let’s continue to telling stories and celebrating after you have had a rest, a meal, and some sleep.

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.  Why don’t we rest?  Why do we push ourselves to keep doing more and more? Have you ever been around a tired toddler?  They will insist that they are not tired, even through big yawns.  Even when their eyes are barely open, they still will fight sleep. They are so afraid that they will miss something.  Grown-ups are not all that different.  We are so tired, but we will not stop and rest.  We are so afraid that we will miss something. 

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile  Come lie down in green pastures.  Come beside still waters.   Our souls can be restored when we rest in Jesus. Even if we stop long enough to relax, we still have to slow down our minds and let go of our troubles. Jesus is ready to take on all the burdens we are carrying.  We feel pressed upon by the needs around us.  For some, it is being a caregiver.  For others, it is living with pain or illness.  For some, it is financial worries.  For others, it is turmoil in relationships.  Jesus is ready for us to lay down all those heavy burdens.  To stop and rest. 

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile…isn’t that why we have vacations?  When was the last time you were able to get away?  When will you be able to have some time apart?

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile. If you are weary from living through the pandemic, Jesus says rest a while.  If you are weary from what you see on the news, Jesus says rest a while.  If you are weary from physical, emotional, or mental health issues, Jesus says rest a while.  Jesus invites us to rest.  To take a deep breath and recollect ourselves.  Our souls need rest, and Jesus offers us that rest.  We just have to allow ourselves time with him.  Maybe you spend time with God in prayer.  Maybe it is reading Scripture.  Maybe it is journaling.  Maybe it is going for a walk.  Maybe it is a nap.  Give yourself permission to let your soul rest. 

I don’t know what God has in store for you next.  In this story, Jesus is about to feed the 5000.  He and the disciples need to rest so they are ready to face the crowd.  Take the time to rest, don’t judge or shame yourself for resting.  We cannot be successful if we only do and never just be. Accept Jesus’s invitation to rest a while.

New Phases in a Lifelong Calling

I shared about shifts in my calling, and interviewed several colleagues. I found it interesting that no matter how we live out our call, we are in a constant state of discernment. Friends, family, colleagues, prayer, and Scripture help us listen for what God wants us to do next.

Thanks to Rev. Lee Ann Pomrenke for being an excellent editor, and to Rev. Scott Donnelly, Rev. Melanie Homan, and Rev. Andrea Roske-Metcalfe for sharing their stories.

Grandmas

When I was born, I had 8 total grandmas, including three great-great-grandmas. I also had one bonus grandma, Aunt Mae, who was my Grandma Helen’s aunt . I don’t remember two of my great-great-grandmas, Great Grandma Harris on my dad’s side (Grandma Helen’s maternal Grandma), and Great Grandma Yount on my mom’s side (Grandmother’s maternal grandma). They both passed away before I was even in Kindergarten. Eventually, Grandmother had us call her that so she would have a different name than everyone else.

Great Grandma Wright, Erma Gibbs Wright, (Grandmother’s paternal grandma) was a faithful woman. I remember visiting her in her house in Mound City, Missouri, and then in the nursing home. Uncle Bob lived with her, and then went to the nursing home with her. She is the only family member who had breast cancer. We had several family reunions around her birthday in August. I believe that she was 96 when she passed away, and I was in 3rd grade. Knowing my memories of her gives me hope that Brynna will remember Grandmother.

Grandma Freeman (Grandfather’s mom) Alta Mae (Ramsey) Freeman I called the “Old Bear.” Apparently, that is what I thought she sounded like when she snored. She was a schoolteacher. I definitely remember visiting them in Tarkio, MO. She loved purple. I have heard many stories about her, but I mostly remember her sitting in her recliner. She passed away when I was in 6th grade.

Aunt Mae, Minnie Mae (Harris) Davenport, was Grandma Helen’s aunt who helped raise her after her mother died. We all adored Aunt Mae. She was feisty, fun, and loving. She gave me my 3rd grade Bible, which I still have. She was proud that we went to church. She loved us like a grandma would. By the time I have memory, Aunt Mae lived with her daughter Carolyn. I loved visiting there because they had a fun farm and a trampoline. Carolyn’s two granddaughters were my age, so they were fun to play with too. When I was in college, I led Aunt Mae’s Memorial Service. I didn’t know if I could, but I did, and it meant a lot to me to be able to do that for my family.

Great Grandma Padgitt, Viola Faye (Asman) Padgitt, was my dad’s paternal Grandma. She was a small but strong woman. She was a faithful member of the Kellerton Christian Church. She was an excellent cook, had a large garden, and I got to spend a lot of time at her house. There was a tree swing. We had many Sunday dinners there, and her rolls were particularly delicious. I think my cousin makes them now. I always loved it when my dad’s cousins came to visit because they were my age. She was a beautiful seamstress and made me many beautiful clothes. She even made my junior prom dress. I think I was in seminary, or the end of college when she passed away. I read Scripture at her service.

Granny, Eva Cordelia (Yount) Wright, was Grandmother’s mom. I always looked forward to their visits from Texas, and we went there sometimes too. Granny made me biscuits and gravy and pies. She had the best laugh. I can still hear it plainly. She told Grandmother that she was spoiling me rotten when I was little. The last time I saw her, she met Marty. She really liked him, but she was not up for travel for our wedding. I regret that I never took my girls to meet her. You always think there will be more time. She passed away in 2017, and I led her funeral.

Grandma Helen, Helen Mae (Banks) Padgitt, was one-of-a-kind, I thought, but Brynna is so much like her. Grandma loved me unconditionally. She taught me that I could do anything if I set my mind to it. She was proud of me, and we had so much fun together. When we would stay overnight, we would pile in her bed and watch musicals. She introduced me to so many classics that I still love today. In the summer, she would have Grandpa drive us to get an ice cream cone. In winter, it was to the mini mart in town for a candy bar or chips. She was a beautiful pianist, and she would let me play for hours. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t very good, she still encouraged me. Once I could drive, my parents let me drive the 12 hours there to visit. I loved looking at photo albums with her, or old yearbooks. She had so many stories that I wish I would have written down. I have so many more questions to ask her. I love when Brynna looks as me with a Grandma expression, or when she whispers loudly like Grandma did. They only got to meet one time when Brynna was 6 months old. Either she left her imprint, or genetics are strong. Either way, what a gift! When I was in seminary, she asked me if I would lead Grandpa’s service when he passed away. I agreed, and then she asked me to lead hers. When the time came, though, I regretted saying yes. It was too hard. I was able to put on the pastor hat and do it. I felt like my grief took longer, as I was not able to experience it fully during the service. Sadly, I was not able to keep my promise to her about Grandpa’s service, because I was too weak and sick during chemo.

And now Grandmother. Carol Annette (Wright) Freeman. She was our babysitter, so I spent a lot of time with her. I remember always wanting to spend the night with her when they lived in Iowa, but I can only remember getting to a handful of times. She taught me the importance of female friendships, as Jamy and I would tag along on many “tea” dates with her friends. When they moved to Missouri, we wanted to spend as much time at their farm as possible, because they had a pool. Those were the best summers of my life. When I turned 21, we went to Gatlinburg together on a trip. She took care of me when I was sick on so many occasions. She and I took turns staying in the hospital for mom’s first cancer. She came and stayed with us after Kaley was born. So many ordinary days that she filled with love and light. Words can’t capture the special bond we have. Back in December, she told me not to be sad when her time was up because she had a wonderful life, and she was ready. But I am not minding her at all. I am broken-hearted. After Grandma Helen’s funeral, I told her that I would not lead her service when the time came. She was ok with that. I’m so glad we had that conversation, because I don’t feel like leading a service. I don’t feel like doing anything but holding my girls.

There is plenty of grief just about Grandmother, but it has brought up a lot of other grief too. Thank you for letting me share about each one of these special women. So much more to say than a brief paragraph. They all influenced me in their own way. I am grateful. And I wish I had one more day, or even one more hour, with each of them. There is never enough time.

Loss of Future Story and Anticipatory Grief

In seminary I took many pastoral care classes. One of the things that has really stuck with me is about grief. We not only grieve what was, but we also grieve what we hoped would be, our future story. Ending a relationship often requires grieving all that you had imagined your future together would be like. Losing a parent or loved one involves grieving all the events and holidays that they will not be able to celebrate with you. For many, the loss of that future story takes a lot of time and energy during the grieving process. As we realize new times that we won’t be together, like when we are at an event that we wish our loved one was with us.

I’m experiencing a new kind of grief: anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss. I am grieving the loss of someone who is still with us. Though she is not actively in the dying process, she has recently been diagnosed with dementia. I am grieving that she will no longer be the same. Ambiguous loss is grief about losing the way things used to be, and in this case, how she used to be.

One of the ways I deal is by research. I took a class on dementia, and it is brain failure, not unlike my heart failure. That helped me understand it better. By the end, she could lose up to 70%, or 2/3 of her brain. As time goes by, we will lose more and more of “her.” I learned about brain changes and physical changes. She will lose her ability to see well, first her peripheral vision, than it will be like she is looking through binoculars, and then seeing out of only one eye at a time. She is losing her executive functions at a faster rate than normal aging, and her ability to keep herself safe and see logical consequences to actions.

The teacher of my class, Krisie Barron, LSW, said dementia was like going on vacation and never getting to come home. And that home can be a place, or feeling safe, or even looking for themselves. Check out her website https://www.embracingjourneys.com/ . She shared 4 truths about dementia:

  1. Two parts of the brain are dying.
  2. It is chronic, and there is no cure.
  3. It is progressive.
  4. It is terminal.

Before her diagnosis, I had suspected dementia. Learning more about symptoms has made me realize that she may have had dementia for awhile now. Some days she is great. Some days many symptoms are present. She always knows who I am. We have left nothing unsaid, and yet there is so much more I want to know about her life. I want to hear stories again and again, and I want to write them all down. I want to spend time with her, and I feel a new sense of urgency. I want things to be like they were a few years ago, yet I know they never will be the same again.

The theme of the last year for me has been grief. The pandemic caused all of us to grieve many things. Maybe you are still grieving what we lost. Maybe you are grieving a future story of what you hoped would be. Maybe you are grieving in anticipation of how things are not yet normal and what won’t yet happen. Maybe you are grieving ambiguous losses of the ways things used to be. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to each other. We do not know where anyone is in their grief journey at any given moment.

In the Valley of Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:11 “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

You can read Ezekiel 37:1-14 here.

Reading about the valley of dry bones feels close to home.  As we have passed the year anniversary of being at home in quarantine, many of us may feel that we are cut off completely from our communities. Online worship does not provide the same opportunities to see our church families.  Both of my daughters changed schools this fall, and I have never been inside either building.  It is weird.  The murder of George Floyd and subsequent Chauvin trial, the many other black men and women who have been murdered, the countless mass shootings, the riot at the Capitol on January 6, and the postponement of The United Methodist’s General Conference and the creation of the Global Methodist Church all have me feeling more hopeless than hopeful.

Our bones are dried up.  The life-giving blood and muscle are no longer surrounding them.

 

Ezekiel is written after the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE.  The community of Jews is scattered.  Their hope is to be able to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple.  I cannot help but feel like much of the U.S. and the United Methodist Church needs rebuilt.  Fear and violence keep us apart.  We are afraid of change.  We are afraid of others.  We are afraid that we will have to give up our comfort for someone else.  It isn’t pie, as the saying goes.

In answer to the exiles’ despair, God says, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (37:14).  The Easter story is about claiming life.  Death and dry bones do not have the final say.  God’s Spirit lives within us and invites us to claim abundant life.  We are invited to focus on life, and all that is life-giving.  To share love, to act with loving hearts, and to see all “others” as people who also have God’s Spirit living within them.   We are invited to see each other as beloveds, rather than strangers. 

John Wesley read this as “a resurrection of the church from an afflicted state to liberty and peace”  (Wesley Study Bible notes p 1032).  This hope can apply to the church universal, as we all try to figure out how to be church together and apart.  It also can apply to the divisiveness within The United Methodist Church as we await the postponed General Conference.  The Church universal has had to pivot during quarantine and is now faced with the challenge of what programs to resume, and what need to remain in the past. 

All of  us can take the lessons we learned in quarantine and decide how we want to live. Do we want to resume all our activities?  Can we seek a balance between activities and being home?  What relationships serve us, and which do not?  What give us life, and what is not life-giving? 

If you are feeling stuck in the valley of dry bones, that is ok.  There is a time to lament, cry, pray, shout, be angry, and wonder if these bones can ever live again.  And it is also ok, when you are ready to claim life in your bones.  To choose how you want your life to be.  To work for change personally and within your communities.  To be aware of God’s Spirit within you and recognize it in everyone else too. 

May you find hope in one another’s love.

On Not Celebrating a Cancer-versary

November 5, 2020 was my five year cancer-versary.  I thought that it would feel like a huge celebration if I made it to that benchmark without a recurrence.  I believed I would feel relieved.  However, that is not how I experienced it at all.   Celebrating is something I am not good at, in general.   Everything changed on that day of diagnosis, and time can be marked from it: before cancer and after cancer.  I have been working to unpack why making it to this goal did not feel more celebratory, and I am ready to share.

  1. Cancer is still a part of my everyday life. 

There is not a day yet that goes by that I don’t think of it.  First of all, it is a reality whenever I dress.  Do I wear a breastform or knitted knocker, or do I go flat? What will I look like with each one of those choices?  Am I even or imbalanced? 

I often say to my husband, “I do not have a right breast.”  He nods, as this is fact, but I am regularly still shocked by it.  Luckily, my scar looks good, and I am so grateful for that, especially since I have seen some pictures of awful ones.  Dr. Fox was a fabulous surgeon in every way, and I will always be grateful for the care she gave me.  (Though I hope to never be her patient again!) 

Herceptin, which was a part of my chemo regimen, damaged my heart.  I will be on heart medications for the rest of my life.  Thankfully, my current heart function is technically no longer in heart failure.  I am able to recognize my symptoms right away, which are primarily fatigue and shortness of breath.  My cardiologist was never too concerned, except for my family history.  He retired, and now I need to find a new doctor.  I have put it off because of the pandemic and symptom management.  However, my oncologist wants me to see a cardiologist before I return to her in June.

I developed asthma after radiation.  I have to use an inhaler twice a day, and carry a rescue inhaler. I know what triggers a reaction, which includes laughing really hard and the cold air.  The others I can usually avoid. 

 Chemotherapy put me into menopause.  I did not ever go back to “normal,” and now I am postmenopausal.  Every evening I have hot flashes.  It is such a fact of life, that my family is used to me suddenly sweating, peeling off layers of clothes, searching for a hair band to put up my hair, and fanning myself.  I take medicine to control night sweats.  My doctor said chemo-induced menopause is worse.  Yay. 

I take a lot of medicine every day.  I get tired of managing my prescriptions. I literally have a shelf carved out in a kitchen cabinet for all of them.  It is annoying.

2. Tamoxifen

I will take it until August 2026.  That seems far away, even though that is only 65 more bottles.  Technically, because I am post-menopausal, I could switch to an aromatase inhibitor.  However, the side effects of it are no better.  At least with Tam I know how my body responds to it even if I do not like it.  The one that upsets me most is the bloated abdomen.  Some days I literally look pregnant.  I get asked how far along I am, and just please never ask anyone that question.  It is hurtful.  I also struggle with losing weight because of it, so I am still carrying the extra 25 pounds I gained during chemo.  My oncologist said her breast cancer patients gain weight instead of losing, so I am still unhappy about that. It is frustrating to know that whether I work hard at diet or exercise, or eat whatever I want and be lazy, my weight does not change.  I try to be healthy and get strong, and not weigh too often.  My husband was in line at the pharmacy behind someone getting Tam.  He said she was obviously older than me and had the bloat.  I belong to enough Tam and survivor support groups to know my symptoms are not unusual. 

3. Healing

After surgery, I did physical therapy to be able to move my right arm again.  This had more to do with the sentinel node biopsy than the mastectomy. I am slowly regaining feeling under my arm, my side, along my scar.  When the nerves begin to “wake up,”   I feel very itchy, yet I am unable to scratch in a way that I can feel to satisfy the itch. Sometimes putting on deodorant is uncomfortable, because I am tender. 

Last January I started a strength training class.  My right arm is still so much weaker than my left, but I am slowly but surely working to make it stronger.  Yoga has helped too, and it also helps with my balance, which is thrown off by my imbalanced chest.

4. Grieving

The stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are not linear (https://www.psycom.net/depression.central.grief.html).  The grief is still close enough to the surface that I am aware of it.  Sometimes I might go for a long stretch in the acceptance phase, only to return to being very sad and feeling deformed.  It is only in the last few months that I have been able to give myself the time and space to intentionally grieve all the losses associated with my breast cancer.  It is not something I can check off a to-do list; it may be a part of my process forever.  There is plenty of emotional work that still needs to be done from the loss of my breast, the reality of my heart, menopause, and all the other changes in my body.

5. Other Survivors

My dear friend’s mom had a breast cancer recurrence after twenty years.  She now has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, and is enduring treatments.  Her type of breast cancer is different than mine, but the fact that it could come back after so long makes me feel I will never be free.  I know of others, like another friend’s mother-in-law who is living with stage 4 MBC and doing ok.  I will always wonder if it has returned.  I am vigilant about noticing changes in my body, and sometimes this is good, and sometimes scary, like when I found a growth on my scar a few years ago.  Thankfully, it was just necrosis, dead scar tissue. 

The only tests I have are bloodwork and annual mammogram.  This is good, because scanxiety is a real thing.  However, it always worries me that we will not catch it before it spreads.

I truly am grateful to continue to be cancer free.  I am thankful for every good report, every time I finish another bottle of Tamoxifen.  Every day is putting me further and further away from the time I was sick.  Though it is a slower process than I would like, I am healing.  I have made many strides, when I think back to where I was five years ago, or even last year.  Maybe I put too much pressure on a date, rather than the daily gratitude of where I am.

Lent 2021

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

That question hits me differently this year, in the midst of a pandemic, when I am concerned with the health of my family, friends, and neighbors I have not even met. We all want this quarantine way of life to be over, yet we also have pandemic fatigue. It is so hard not to hug, visit, or be together. It is so annoying not to travel. The long days of winter seem longer while cooped up at home.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus stops at the pool of Bethsaida where those who are sick gather. Jesus asks a man who has been lying there for 38 years, “Do you want to be made well?” You can read the passage – https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+5%3A1-9&version=CEB

The man is clearly in need of healing. He is at the Sheep Gate, at the pool rumored to be stirred up by an angel of the Lord sometimes, and the first person to get in that moving water is healed. Why would Jesus ask him if he wants to be healed? Of course he wants to be healed, and says a loud, “YES!” Actually, that is not how the story goes at all. Instead of shouting yes, the man tells Jesus that he needs someone to put him in the water, and that someone always beats him to it. Maybe that is the truth. Maybe it is an excuse. Maybe he has been ridiculed so much in his life that he is defensive.

Do you want to be made well? Yes, but not if I have to do anything about it. I am tired of wearing a mask, staying home, and not seeing other people. I am tired of not eating out, traveling, or even having a vacation planned. I am tired of hearing stories of people dying, of long-term consequences of having covid-19, and also hearing others denying the severity of the virus. I am tired of having loved ones contract covid, and worrying about others potentially contracting it. I am tired, because this has been going on for almost a year, and I have done my part and tried to make the best choices and follow guidelines. (I am sure I have failed at times.)

We all want the pandemic to be over, but then pandemic fatigue is real, and we start taking risks. We want to escape the frigid winter and go some place warm. We expand our pod. We dine in, unmasked while we eat. We hug, because we need each other. Do you want this to end? Yes, but I am tired of this way of life. We started this pandemic during Lent last year. In many ways, it seems like this last year has been a year of Lent, in the penitential and sacrificial ways of observing it.

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days in the liturgical calendar.  Why?  We remember that we are mortal – we have been formed from dust and to dust we shall return. Genesis 2:7 “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”  It is a day that we remember our failings, and take a step in healing. Lent is the period of 40 days plus six Sundays leading up to Easter.  It is a time of reflection, self-examination, and deepening our relationship with God.  Sometimes people give something up or take something on to aid in their spiritual focus during the season. Every Lent, I think my life is going to be changed.  Each year, when I allow myself to be changed, I am.  When I fight the transformation, when I don’t allow God to do God’s healing work in me, then my life doesn’t change.

“Do you want to be made well?”  I pray that we will not answer like the sick man, with fact or excuse. I pray that we will instead open ourselves up to healing. I pray that we will allow the healing work of God to transform us. I pray that we will all care for one another by wearing masks, by doing our part to not spread the virus, and by reaching out to those who are lonely. I pray that this pandemic will end sooner rather than later. I pray that I have the wisdom to always seek healing.

Christian Nationalism and Civic Religion

I am not one of “those” Christians.  I do not want to be associated with a racist, patriarchal institution that spouts a theology of white supremacy and exclusivism.  However, I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church (UMC). 

Christian nationalism is a blending of Christian and American identities. The teachings of the Bible and the words of our constitution get mixed together, and for some Christian nationalists, being an American and a Christian cannot be separated. However, being an American does not necessarily equal being a Christian.  Being a patriot requires loyalty to the Constitution and country, but not to a particular faith.  Many Christian nationalists believe they have God-given rights.  Many who would not consider themselves Christian nationalists, believe the 4th of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day should be amplified in church services.  Cultural holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day get mixed in as well.  We sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,” but then “God Bless America” with a vigor of ownership.  Christianity is not limited to one country.  It is global.  Somehow many believe that America is better than other countries because God deemed it so.  We have whitewashed Jesus to look like someone of European descent rather than the Middle Eastern Jewish man he was. 

You can read more about Christian nationalism in this article from Relevant magazine. https://www.relevantmagazine.com/magazine/under-god-the-rise-of-christian-nationalism/

I am an American Christian, but I am not a Christian nationalist.  I am a patriot, loyal to my country, but also not afraid to critique it. Our current political division, with all the name-calling, inability to work together, and lack of civil discourse troubles me, both as a patriot and as a follower of Jesus.

Our country’s forefathers specifically did not make The United States of America a Christian nation.  Religious freedom is in the Bill of Rights.  The first Amendment begins,  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

Separation of church and state means no religious leader should use their pulpit to tell their congregations how to vote.  It is certainly acceptable to encourage people to exercise their civic duty to vote, but endorsing a particular candidate or political party is not.  I admit that it can be tricky as a pastor.  I am guessing that many think they know how I voted.  I have been more willing to join political conversations as I age.  However, I would never tell someone what to think or how to vote.  Nor will I have political yard signs, or work for a particular candidate.  Because I live in Minnesota where we caucus, I do not even feel comfortable participating in that process because publicly identifying with a candidate seems wrong as a pastor.  However, I know many of my colleagues are able to manage their private politics and public pulpit differently. 

One of the beautiful things about our country is that we do not have to all think alike.  We also should not condemn each other for thinking differently.  Democracy and our election process does mean there are winners and losers.  However, it also provides opportunity to come together to do the work of the people.  All people, not just PACS and the 1%.  Admittedly, I have lost a lot of faith in politicians who seem to be able to be bought and sold, rather than putting the best interests of their constituents first.  I am weary of people who would rather be right than willing to do the right thing.  The divisiveness makes me sad and angry.

Why do we as humans naturally divide into us and them?  We need to unite against a common threat, it seems, instead of uniting as citizens of our country.  America has always been a melting pot.  Now we debate immigration policy as a partisan issue. 

I am a Jesus-follower.  I would prefer to identify myself in that way so that I am not identified with the Christians who stormed the Capitol.  I do not want to be identified with those who claim to be pro-life but who built gallows to kill those who did not agree with them or do their bidding.  Thank God for being in charge of Christianity!  I pray that God will help us get out of the mess civil religion and Christian nationalism have caused. 

You can read more about how Christianity was on display on January 6, 2021 here: https://apnews.com/article/christianity-capitol-riot-6f13ef0030ad7b5a6f37a1e3b7b4c898

Civil religion is “a public profession of faith that aims to inculcate political values and that prescribes dogma, rites, and rituals for citizens of a particular country.”  https://www.britannica.com/topic/civil-religion. We watched it play out in the Inauguration.  I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance, the music, and especially the poetry.  I also watched the prayer service online the next day.  It was interfaith, but mostly Christian.  President Biden is Catholic, and he had a priest deliver the Invocation at the Inauguration.  During his own address, POTUS asked the audience to join him in a prayer.  Though I enjoyed both the Inauguration and the prayer service, afterward I felt a little uneasy.  Just as I was uncomfortable with Christian nationalists, I was also uncomfortable with the use of Christianity amid the civic ritual.

I am a product of mainstream Protestantism, specifically UMC, which became that iteration in 1968, and has been declining ever since.  My denomination is global, and therefore not a national religion.  My alma mater was a Protestant liberal arts college, specifically PCUSA.  I attended a Southern liberal Divinity School for seminary, that was no longer affiliated with any specific denomination.  My faith informs my politics, and I would be naïve if I didn’t admit that my politics inform my faith.  Politics encourages me to think of things that I might never think about in my private life.  I am grateful for the UMC’s Book of Discipline that has guidelines for what the denomination believes in its Social Principles, that I can go to for not only my personal beliefs, but also to help congregation members who may have questions or struggles.  I was taught to be a critical thinker, and to figure out for myself what I believe. In my tradition, we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Reason (my own mind and that of other theologians and leaders), Tradition (the Book of Discipline, church history), and Experience (prayer, and my own life). https://www.umc.org/en/content/glossary-wesleyan-quadrilateral-the

Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Common English Bible)  He also taught the Greatest Commandment “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” Matthew 22:37-40.

The way we as Christians treat our neighbors is not a good witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are not loving in American right now.  There are those who are fearful of the new Administration.  There is much cynicism.  There is much discrimination, and white supremacy needs to be dismantled.  I hope that we will denounce all forms of white supremacy, systemic racism, injustice, by remaining engaged instead of silent.  I hope that those of us who follow Jesus will work at loving our neighbor, ALL neighbors.  I hope that we will put aside our partisan differences to work together “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8.

May we live out our faith and demonstrate love of country without conflating the two.  I realize that some of you may disagree with me. I welcome civil discourse in the comments. I also realize that by taking a side against Christian nationalism, some people will feel attacked. That is not my intention. I am sharing my personal beliefs and concerns. Though I feel strongly, I am humble enough to admit that I may not always be right.

CAREY MEYER

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