Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reflections from Florida Christian Writer's Conference 2014

Reflections from Florida Christian Writer’s Conference 2014

This February I was blessed to participate in the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference. For those of you couldn’t make it, I want to share what stood out for me. It is my hope that these reflections translate to not just writing, but any vocation, whether you’re a minister, homemaker, farmer, or teacher. 

            First, I was delighted by the diversity of God’s story tellers. I met a teenage girl, who was way cooler than I was as teenager (or ever will be for that matter) writing a young adult dystopian, a non-profit worker committed to strengthening families (I am pretty sure I will see him on a book cover in the next few years), and an eighty plus children’s book author. Oh, and yes, there was my fellow pregnant friend who like me, is writing away during nap time (you go mama!). Everyone had different interests, different stories, and different passions. What I think gave these stories meaning and depth, was Jesus in them; the redemption, the hope, and the inspiration that only he can bring. The stories that really cooked had a lot Jesus at the center, mixed with the individuality and uniqueness of the artist. What I learned is that Jesus is the great story teller, if you let your story start with him, it’s sure to sing. 

            Second, rejection and resistance are an essential, if not a generative part of our craft. I have always felt that good writing takes about ten percent talent, ten percent a great idea, forty percent willingness to be criticized, if not flat-out rejected, and forty percent perseverance, hard work, or better put, long-suffering. Film maker Brent McCorkle, Unconditional (2012), stated that God chose to exist in a world of resistance, and resistance makes redemption possible.

Break-out group with author Craig Von Buseck

 This articulated what I have perceived in my evolution as a writer. I have found that it is through setbacks, that my writing is strengthened. There is always a moment after a rejection to despair. This usually looks like a lot of emotional eating, crying to my husband, followed with a dramatic declaration that I quit and no longer want to write. It is just way too hard. After I get over this hump, I can reconsider what is working and what isn’t. I can see my writing with new perspective and hopefully, get closer to the goal of creating beautiful words and ideas that please God. Embracing resistance is   the key to creating anything worthwhile. 

            Third, you can’t write alone, you have to share your work with others. Literary types repeatedly talk of the “platform,” of an author. This word used to give me a full body cringe, but lately, I have learned to embrace the reality that artists need to be sharing their work, ideas, and lives with others. That is after all, the point of writing. Every writer believes in their heart they have something worthy to share. That is why we write. You have to put yourself out there, even when it is hard, even when it makes you feel awkward, if not, painfully vulnerable. You can’t be a writer and write on your own. Everything we do in life is better when done in community. St. Paul tells us that we are not individuals, but parts of Christ’s dynamic body, so what can be more biblical as an artist than sharing yourself with others? I have been so enriched by the risks that other artists have taken and want to be a part of that kind of inspired sharing. Whatever we do, let’s do it in the fellowship of others.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Guest Blog: The Rev. Christina Vance - From the Defendant's Chair

This week I have the Rev. Christina Vance as my guest blogger. She is a cassock wearing, coffee drinking, theology talking, gospel preaching lover of the Lord. She, also, co-runs a ministry, “Oaks of Righteousness,” to the urban poor in Troy, New York.

 Her work is an excellent example of cross-cultural ministry right here in the United States – something that is so needed. I think this post demonstrates that although ministry to the poor and powerless can be uncomfortable, it is reflects the love of Jesus in a tangible way. Blessing to all, Lilly.

Reflections from the Defendant’s Chair

Rev. Christina Vance

Today, I accompanied one of my parishioners to court for an eviction hearing. Wore full black clericals and my collar and Franciscan crucifix. Got lots of stares.

My parishioner wasn't especially upset about going to court. She wanted to be evicted -- in the dizzying world of social services, she said eviction is one of the most effective methods to bring about a move to a different part of town that isn't an emergency. She went to court today quite willing to meet her landlord's request to get out -- she just asked to stay where she was for two weeks.

For her and her three kids, two weeks would make the difference between moving straight into her new place or moving temporarily into a shelter. She wanted to spare her kids that. So did I, so I went with her.

The landlord, who eyed me somewhat nervously, seemed like a decent guy who had no problems helping my parishioner out. He simply wanted legal backing to protect himself in case she stuck around past her grace period. I can't blame him.

Sitting in court today, watching case after case go before a straight-shooting, wise-cracking judge, several things occurred to me:

First, most of the folks sitting in the defendants' chairs were black, and most of the folks in the plaintiffs' chairs were white. At least half of those white people were attorneys.

Second, it was clear from the way the cases proceeded that some of the tenants were taking advantage of their landlords. In other cases, it seemed likely the landlords were allowing their tenants to live in lousy conditions. Some landlords extended a great deal of grace. Some wanted their tenants tossed out by the city marshal asap.

Third, as I anticipated sitting beside my parishioner in a defendant's chair, it occurred to me that I didn't want to. I even felt scared and embarrassed to sit there, although neither my comfort nor my good name were at stake. Why? Because the defendant's chair had a strong aura of guilt and powerlessness. And, I didn't want to sit in a seat with no power.

Fourth, I noticed, in a different way than I ever have, that my collar gave me a weird kind of power. The landlord was intimidated by me. The judge greeted me. People stared at me. And, my parishioner assured me, my silent presence helped make it possible for her kids to avoid the homeless shelter.

So, when the case was called, I marched my pious-looking self over to the seat with no power. And I thought, "This is the seat you deserved years ago, Christina. You drove drunk so many times in the past. You deserve the worst this seat can throw at you, and sheer mercy saved you."

And then I thought about Jesus. Sitting in the defendant's seat. Sitting in the seat with no power. Taking the worst it could throw at him.

The judge greeted me. "What church are you with, Reverend?"

"Jesus' church, sir."

"Well, yes. Which one?"

"The Episcopal Church, sir."

"One of many."

"Yes, your honor."

The thing a priest can't escape is -- no matter where we go -- we represent the church. And today, I got to represent the church by sitting in the seat with no power, and that was used for good. That gives me joy and satisfaction.

But -- more than anything -- sitting in that seat today made me love Jesus more.

For More on Christina and her ministry:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dazed and Confused Mommies Unite!

Dazed and Confused Mommies Unite!

There is a television advertisement, which features a well known soap star. She enters the scene perfectly dressed, beautiful, and dancing from room to room of her house. As she flutters here and there, she solves one crisis after the next. She comes home from works and throws plates into the air, providing a delicious and nutritious meal for her kids. They smile at her in admiration. She walks in the next room, where she entertains a large party, providing, drinks, food, and smiles for all. She kisses her husband on the way and checks herself in the mirror. Shocker- she’s still looking good! 

The message is clear, ladies we can do it all; have a great job, look amazing, have a fabulous home, be a wonderful mom, a loving wife, an awesome friend and host, and all while dancing! 

I think the pressure our culture places on moms is almost inhuman. 

I’ve been afraid to blog about it, because most blogs on the subject of motherhood make feel bad. One blogger wrote at length on the evils of processed foods and those little goldfish crackers (I always thought those were pretty good. I mean they say “whole grain”). Another said “crying it out” was unchristian, where another had the exact opposite opinion and the lists of things to and not to do is never-ending. In the pictures everyone looked too put together and why as a culture must we be so obsessed with losing baby weight? Nearly every tabloid I see focuses on how a celebrity mom is now super skinny post pregnancy. 

Have you ever wondered how our true lives –not the ones we aspire too, but our actual lives would look posted on one of these blogs? Now that I have a toddler and am pregnant with number two, I can just see myself in sweat pants with food stains from breakfast number two. I would be pictured on the floor with my toddler trying really hard not to pass out from first trimester exhaustion. 

Truthfully, motherhood is wonderful, but it is the hardest thing I have ever done and I know I often can’t do it dancing and smiling.       

I don’t know how to be a great mom. When I first laid eyes on the miracle of my daughter, my heart swelled with spontaneous love. I wanted so badly to do right by her. I just have never known how exactly to that. Should I let her cry? Should I not? How much television can she watch? When should I start discipline? How to start discipline? When to switch to a toddler bed? Is she learning enough? Are we reading enough? Is she cold? 

The past twenty odd months I have spent so much time feeling inadequate, insufficient to the task. While pregnant with her many people told me, “listen to your inner mother voice, it will lead you to all truth.” I kept waiting to hear that voice. To be sure, maternal instincts are real, but that I could know what to do on all things mommy was beyond my grasp. 

Here is my one comfort and it took me about eighteen months to grasp it: I have learned that in all facets of life and not just motherhood there is great power in admitting our inadequacies, inefficiencies, and over all, plain neediness.  It allows God to enter into our lives in a deeper way. 

 After realizing this nugget of truth - that I was clueless as a mom and needed him to help me, I was able to gather a few principles on motherhood which help me. That being said, these ARE NOT “how to” guides because I would feel like a fraud dishing those out. If anything, these principles come from a place of not knowing what to do and feeling completely overwhelmed, but I have turned to them things constantly over the last couple months. 

 That I can pray for my daughter changes everything. When I pray, I no longer feel helpless, I am taking action. Jesus told us that we have been given the keys of the kingdom and whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven… We have amazing powers in our prayers.
There is extraordinary mom in my church. When her son was little he wanted a drum set and music lessons. It was his big dream. His mother was desperate because she couldn’t afford the drum set or the lessons. It tore her up. She prayed one day and heard that still small voice, “Lay hands on your son and pray. I will teach him to play the drums.” That evening, the whole family laid hands on the young man and prayed for him. Two weeks later he was given a drum set from a friend and one of his church band members offered to teach him how to use it. More than this, there have been times, when he was stuck musically. He would reach a wall. They would stop to pray and slowly Jesus showed him they way forward. This story shows that there is power with a mother who prays.

There is the master and the disciple. As a new mom, I am definitely in the disciple category. I found that listening has helped me immensely. Listening to other moms and dads has been incredibly fruitful. It takes a body of people to raise a child and the more I can incorporate collective wisdom into my parenting, the better things are. Developing an inner circle of a few trusted friends or family members to go with your parenting needs helps so much. There are three people I listen to more than any others; Jesus, my husband, and daughter. She lets me know in subtle ways what’s working and what is not. Through all this, we can cultivate a posture of listening; one which allows us to respond to not only the needs of our children, but our own needs as well. 

As moms we never have it all together and it is good thing to admit that. It allows us to learn and grow from each other. It gives way to greater authenticity and freedom. Most importantly, it gives God room to come and parent our children. After all, he is best at it. 

I like to think the polka dots glams this up.

If this post was not helpful to you as a mom, then by all means completely forget everything you just read!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Global Persecution, Suffering, and Friendship

Global Persecution, Suffering, and Friendship

Why should Western Christians care about the persecution, suffering, and poverty of Christians in other places of the world? The question at first glance, seems an obvious one, but I think it requires full reflection, so we may have a right working theology, the kind of theology that allows us to act today. The question is further complicated when we consider that to follow Jesus in the here and now, in our little spheres of influence, can be quite rigorous. We have people to prayer for, marriages to nurture, children to raise, job duties, active roles in our churches and ministries. All of this requires daily, if not hourly work. How then can we look outside our spheres to our sister in Honduras or our brother in Uganda? Is that even achievable for your regular day to day Christian? I hope to show that care for Christians around the world and not just in our immediate sphere is essential to the Christian life and that not only can we do it, but be blessed by it.
            The most compelling reason to care for our brothers and sisters in other places of the world is just this: they are brothers and sisters. Jesus through his work and person, has given us a new family, and it requires a portion of the care and attention that we give our own biological family. During his active ministry Jesus continually refers to his followers as his family and they are equally important to his biological family, in fact he makes no distinction between the two. “Then he looked around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother,” (Mark 3:35). Even if they look, sound, or act differently from oneself, they are still a sister. Even if they are a great distance from you, they are still your brother. Jesus, furthermore, tells us to love our brothers and sisters in the same way he loved us. Consider the words of Christ, “A new command I give you: Love one another. By this all men will now that you are my disciples, you love one another,” (John 13:34). Jesus before his passion instructs his people to love each other and this love is to be the outward mark of the inner reality, that we are mystically united to each other through him.  
            More than a family, we are a body. To be sure, Jesus affirms the dignity of each individual and speaks to each of us personally. His love and knowledge of each unique person is such that the “very hairs of your head are all numbered,” (Mt. 10:30) and yet Jesus disrupts the notion of the sovereign individual. Such a person does not exist in the eyes of our Lord. We are all highly related and interconnected, as organs are to the body. In as much as Jesus calls you by name, he calls you Christ. He calls you a part of himself as St. Paul explains “…so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belong to all the others,” (Rom 12:5).  I might be the armpit and my friend Shadrack in Kenya is the ear. All parts of the body are equally important, all work for the good of the whole. More than this, we do not belong wholly to ourselves, but to each other. Our gifts, talents, ideas, resources, and wisdom are all intended for shared blessing. This means we never stand alone. The things we do and say, or do not do or say, affect our sisters and brothers. Truly, there is no distinction between the Western and the Non-Western Christian, all are simply Christian.
            It naturally follows that when your brother suffers from hunger, you are affected, united with them in his hunger, or if your sister is persecuted or tortured, you are with her in her pain. It is often said, here in the West, we are not persecuted. This is true. I believe that when we compare Western Christians with Christians in China, for example, our persecution in no way compares to what they have endured. At the same time, however, this is a false assertion and one that prevents us from action, unity, and solidarity. Western Christians do not stand alone, we are a part of Chinese Christians. When they persecuted, we too are persecuted with them, whether or not we care to acknowledge it. And we must acknowledge it, for how else can the body be strong. When we truly understand our interconnectivity that is when we are compelled to act on the behalf of our brother or sister rather than, simply waiting “our turn” in the long standing and ever evolving history of Christian persecution and suffering. 
            Caring about Christians in the non-western world is a part of Jesus’ overall call to care for the welfare of humanity, not just Christians. Jesus has and will always call for the care of the least and loss, to the radical extent that, care for them is the same as caring for him. That is how strongly he identifies with us and that is how seriously he takes our mutual “belonging” to each other. There are no isolated individuals.
            Lastly, we follow our Lord on all matters, for he is our prime example. Jesus does not isolate himself, nor does he hoard his power, enjoying the privileges of his own divinity by himself. But rather he gives it all up, his very body and person, for all people. That would include those near or those far away. In short, he could have easily said, “not my problem” or “what can I do about it” but rather he became involved to the point of total self-sacrifice.    
            This is an extremely basic, if not crude understanding, of why we care for Christians in other parts of the world. It by no means exhausts all the reasons that we should act, but it should give us enough to act today. So, how should we act especially, given the demands of ministry, family, and jobs?
Not everyone is called to a life dedicated to international Christian advocacy work, but all of us are called to care for our brothers and sisters. For instance few of us are called to a monastic life dedicated to prayer, but all of us our called to pray. The same is true for the care of brothers and sisters in places like, Korea, Sudan, or Jamaica. So, how could a woman with three kids who participates in altar guild and volunteers at her local women’s crisis center, also work with Christians in the non-West? Or how might a busy over-worked pastor do the same thing? I believe the answer is found in mere Christian friendship.
            Forming a relationship with a brother or sister in a non-western part of the world is a way to follow the command of Christ to care for his diverse body and it has immeasurable benefits. First, it gets us out of the thorny I’m the “helper” and you are the “helped” relationship, bringing us to a greater place of equality, mutual blessing, service, and learning. At times, Westerners, have thought that we must be saviors to non-western peoples. This posture is not only idolatrous, but it denies us the wonderful opportunity to learn from and be helped and blessed by people different from ourselves. When my husband and I were in seminary, we participated in a weekly Bible study with international students. We learned so much from their experiences and theology. We were able to help them in some key ways, but they helped us greatly too. I was so humbled and blessed when my brother donated to my ministry, when I knew he was making less than twelve dollars a month. Moreover, Jesus says blessed are the poor. This means that Christians who are living in poverty, making ten dollars a month, have a blessing we might not be aware of and have something to teach us. Christian friendship moves us from not just “helping,” but to understanding.
            When I grew-up in Honduras as a little girl, I remember a group of missionaries from the United States came to the village we were living in. They asked our church and villagers if they could build something for us, for they had come to Honduras expecting to build. The villagers had no plans or desire to have something be built. The finally threw some excess rocks in the courtyard and said, “This will give them something to do.” What a missed opportunity by both parties. Imagine if instead of a preoccupation with “service” there was a true emphasis on friendship. The missionaries might have had the chance to learn from the Hondurans, to be blessed by them, and to discover what they truly needed, whether it was prayer, money, theological materials, or simple companionship. And the Hondurans, if they had befriended these Western missionaries, might have been richly blessed likewise and there could have been an enduring and lasting relationship between them. This example demonstrates how Christian friendship cuts to our true motivations. It takes away the guilt, the savior complex, the sense of obligation, and the “do-gooder” in us and brings us something so much more real and true. We can just truly be somebody’s friend.  
All of us can make a friend with someone in other part of the world. We can pray for them, encourage them, bless them, and be blessed by them. And who knows, maybe you will be one of those amazing voices of Christian reconciliation. Perhaps, you will go to Uganda and create a clean water filter or create an orphanage in the mountains of PerĂ¹. All service is best done in the context of Christian friendship, whether or little or small. What a wonderful, wholesome way to follow God’s call.
It might be hard to make friends. Mission trips, talking to your pastor, social media, connecting with missionaries; these are steps you could take. Pray that God bring you a friend. I know it is a prayer he would love to answer.