What It Means

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I continue to cry on and off throughout the day. Tears of sadness. Tears of betrayal. Tears of confusion at the kind of community it seems we live in now – or apparently, have always lived in since we stepped foot in this country as immigrants.

I keep staring out the window wondering, Now what? 

We lost something on November 9th. More than an election. Something – call it humanity, compassion, hope – faltered and perished, and something in me, too.

A friend came over last night. To be in a safe space, somewhere she didn’t need to worry about how people read her – Is she Latina? Is she Arab? Is she a citizen? Is she undocumented? Is she a student? Is she a worker? Somewhere she could lash out and vent, rage and despair over what this election means now. What this election means in terms of the people around her, yes, but also what it means in terms of how the country views her as a woman, a woman of color, a young woman of color. Perhaps, that she will never be good enough, smart enough, capable enough, or that she will be all those things, and that she certainly is all that, but that in the end it won’t matter because they will still choose a man, a white man, even if in comparison he’s completely incompetent, morally devoid, and psychologically unstable.

I despair with her, for myself.

I despair with her for all the ways I have felt this defeat, and probably will in the future. For all the ways I’ve been told I’m not good enough, I do not belong, I should go back to my own country. And then, for the possibility of our little Anna, only five years old, what does this mean for her? Not only the question of women’s reproductive rights, the right to choose, Roe vs. Wade, but for what we believe about women? What they can do? What they are called to do?

What this election means right now is that hate, misogyny, and bigotry have won out. What it means is that racism and xenophobia are given free reign to fully and totally express themselves. What it means is that the utterly superficial platitudes of unity and reconciliation are just tools of white supremacy to get everyone in line. What it means is that this country has said very clearly who belongs here, who is safe, who is one of “us.” What it means is that I’m afraid. I’m afraid for myself. Afraid for my family. Afraid for loved ones and neighbors who have been targeted by Trump’s campaign these last two years. I’m not afraid to say anymore that I am afraid of whiteness, and white supremacy and for all the blatant and explicit, all the insidious and hidden ways it exists and perpetuates itself.

But, what it doesn’t mean is that I will roll over or that we will go running for Canada (maybe, Pittsburgh, though). For now, I will keep on doing the everyday, and feign some semblance of normalcy for the children, and continue to be hopeful and optimistic about our lives. Driving them to school. Going to the store. Attending church every week. Sports practices, music lessons, hikes, and somehow, making what we do together as a family mean something, for it to matter. We’ll keep trying to teach and model love, acceptance, dignity, consent as much as possible. We’ll keep doing work that matters – loving and leading our communities, and showing them that it does mean something.

God help us, we’re up against a lot. 

But. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I’m not alone. That we’re not alone. And that I can help others feel that they’re not alone either. I can be supportive of local groups and actions, and be an active part of these collectives and coalitions, and reach out to those groups in our community that need to know that we’re here for them and with them. I can work, to make this election mean something else, mean something good and real. And the little ways I can with what little I have at my fingertips – telling stories, lifting up those stories of those in the struggle, those who are fighting for what is right, for humanity, for the dignity of those who are considered the least of these. I’ll set that table wide, and fill it overflowing with good things to eat and share, and cram as many people around it as possible. I’ll look people in the eye as I pass them on the street and expect to see the imago dei, the image of the Divine, and all the beauty and courage possible.

What it means, is that I’ll keep trying, keep believing, keep hoping. 

“Today I believe in the possibility of love;
that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

The Parable of the 1% Church

Steeple

And Peter came to Jesus asking: Who is my neighbor? Jesus told them another parable:

There was a church that sought a pastor to be its head of staff.

It was a beautifully immaculate church with gorgeous windows that let in a particularly divine light on Sunday mornings and gleaming floors so spotless that the reflection from the lights overhead made you feel as though you walked on heights. The walls were pure and bright unstained by even the stickiest of children’s hands. The carpet was lush and the dimmers were extravagant. It had an abundance of resources at its fingertips, and it professed to be ready to do a new thing.

Over the span of some months it looked to three potential ministers. One was young and charismatic. Another level-headed and reasonable. Still another with impressive academic credentials and experience. All three entered into these conversations with uncertainty, but equally faithful and trusting in God’s call with an openness to the movement of God’s spirit.

The church interviewed one candidate but then they immediately dropped all communications. The church interviewed the second candidate and expressed enthusiasm but the older members of the committee doubted whether the candidate would be able to perform weekly. The church interviewed the third candidate but faltered and splintered into two camps when asked what they hoped for in their head of staff.

After some time, none of the candidates were chosen, or perhaps they were at one point, no one seemed able to get a straight story from anyone on the committee.

Now, to which candidate was the church a neighbor?

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

And he said:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get back. Money and resources can only get you so far, and privilege will cloud your judgment. For it is the church that deals with its earnest and faithful pastors in truth that will ultimately carry out the will of God’s kingdom, and experience the joy of mutual ministry. For all who exalt themselves will receive their just reward. 

Dreaming Dreams and Performing Hope

Dreaming Dreams and Performing Hope

They come running at us clapping and shout-singing like my 4 year olds but enunciating a lot more clearly: G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G GOOD MORNING (WOOT WOOT) GOOD MORNING (WOOT WOOT) and lead us into a bright space with flying leaps and cartwheels. Stained glass windows line one side of the wall near the ceiling and there are the dark wood beams of early 18th century churches overhead. We walk in and like good Presbyterians sit in the back row but immediately get reprimanded for that by a lovely woman named Eileen. But, she lets us stay there as we watch sixty children stomp the floor not only with their feet but their bodies and voices and we can feel it in our feet.

And then they sing a song about “being strong and finding that what’s inside helps them to resist the wrong” and I just weep quietly. I cry any time kids are playing and singing hard – sometimes out of weariness and sometimes from being filled up.

***

Savannah is a rail in pink and short and bright kicks. Short hair that falls to her shoulders making her look a little older than her 9 years. I am taken with her green eyes and freckles. She is quiet and shy but smiles so huge as she explains the art on the wall that is hers. I wonder if she is someone that normally needs to be coaxed to talk aloud. I can almost see her buzzing with pride and excitement. I look behind her to see the influence of Matisse and Monet in these tissue-paper and crayon pieces.

Above us there are light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling like huge raindrops suspended in time. It’s a lovely effect these tiny angels that stay a little above our heads, and remind me that even when the sun is bright in the room the light from within is just as necessary.

***

I keep thinking about all these ways to perform hope. We embody it in our flesh and blood as we chant and step across the room. We express it in our art as we play with colors and mediums. We share stories, we explore with our songs – ones that we know and ones that we make up, we trample the darkness beneath our feet clutching each others’ hands with shouts of WOOTWOOT.

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy.

Watching and listening I feel like I’m entering into their dreams a little but they’re dreams that feel so real and alive. And this is church – walking, singing these dreams.

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Deeper Story: Drive-Thru Church and How It’s Personal

Deeper Story: Drive-Thru Church and How It’s Personal

“The church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously. And each would have been horrified to think it was a different facet of the same thing. But surely they were both intended to accomplish the same thing: the singing, the devotion, the poetry of the churches took a man out of his bleakness for a time, and so did the brothels.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Staring out the windows. Airplanes inch along the ground and float in the sky. My cloudy eyes turn to the TV screens on every wall around me. Good Morning America, Fox News, ESPN, and the sight of a tabbed collar catches my eye on one show. I squint to read the yellow rectangle at the bottom where it says, “Drive-Thru Church” and a priest with an orange vest is standing in a parking lot hunched over the open window of one car. He shakes someone’s hand and the car moves forward as the one behind him moves up.

Father Matthew is the name of the priest, and he says, “we’re trying to think outside of the box,” and “quantity matters and not quality,” and it’s about “convenience.” I kind of take this almost as an insult. It’s personal. Never would I say that quantity matters or convenience. 

I slide down a little into my seat. As if the word “christian” or “clergy” is tattooed to my forehead and everyone is looking at it. I’m despairing, a little, at this “whatever works” way of doing church.

***

Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.”

― Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

I’m drinking in every word slowly, letting it rest on my tongue then slide down the back of my throat, savoring it, but then suddenly chugging this chalice – before it disappears – made of words, mostly words I don’t understand because it’s written a little in Spanish and another native tongue. Anzaldua has nothing to do with church but she’s speaking of it to me. And it doesn’t matter that I can’t translate everything because what I can gather from the stories and poems is a struggle all too familiar.

The struggle for life. The struggle for lines to mark one's home or yard or walls or room. The struggle for love. The struggle is what binds us together, and we perform and embody it through the Word and words, sacrament and song, pews and prayers, cup and communion.Click To Tweet

It’s how we resist the darkness.

It’s church.

***

One drive-thru congregant mentions the ways this somehow makes it more personal. I think, “A three-minute Hail Mary or Our Father is … personal?” On a day that’s likely full of errands and soccer practice and music lessons and post-office trips, I look at this woman in a minivan, and breathe out, I have no right to judge what she needs from the church. But the pastor in me wonders and worries like a mother hen, if this is truly enough.

Does it give her something beyond words? Does it feed her? Does it give her hope? Does it sustain her life?

Because that’s church to me. The yes to these questions.

And, maybe she would say yes, though, to all those questions. In that moment, in that slight touch, in that brief, automatic whirr of a window that goes down and back up again, maybe, yes, she has found her borderland, a place to find air in the in-between of life-interrupted and chaos, maybe she received peace in that handshake, in the breath that finally comes out after being held all day long to hold everything together, in the words spoken over and through her – something that is truly personal, something that saves her.

#Yoked: On Being Yoked

Yoked magnet

This is part of a series on clergy couples and their stories. Andy and I wrote a book about being a clergy couple and all the insanity that goes along with it called Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry. It was originally posted at Christian Century.

Brian and I are at the Farmer’s Market. I walk up to the vendors, and the wife says, “Oh! You must be Pastor Brian’s wife.”

I shake her hand and say, “Yes, I am Brian’s wife. My name is Carol Howard Merritt.” As she introduces me to her husband, I wonder if I should have added the “Reverend” to my name. I don’t usually use the prefix, but should I have notified them that I’m a pastor too?

The husband begins to tell me how hard it is being a pastor. He knows, because his son serves a church.

I am patient for a while, but then his proxy complaints begin rubbing me the wrong way. Of course, I know the job is difficult, but I have just left an interim position and there is no other pastoral position in sight.

We moved here because my husband had an opportunity to start a church. Since he was the trailing spouse during our last three moves, I owed him. Plus, I have also been writing and speaking for eight years, and a good deal of my income is not bound to any particular geography. It made sense for me to relocate. I am very busy, but concentrating on those things means scheduling my calendar months in advance, which makes me a less likely pastoral candidate.

I really should be thankful for my place in this world. I am thankful. But I also love being a pastor and I can’t help but indulge in a certain longing for my previous positions. I visit lectionary sites during the week, reading the passages, imagining what I would preach, if I could. Then I catch myself and quickly close the Internet, feeling like a stalking ex-lover.

Finally, I break into the conversation. “I’m a pastor too. There are a lot of good things about the job.”

“Oh, it looks good. From the outside, maybe. But believe me, it’s tough.” He starts in again, enumerating all the complaints we gripe about at clergy gatherings.

“I know. I’m a pastor too,” I repeat. “I have served churches for 15 years. I had a lot of good moments during that time.”

“But, you really don’t understand…” and he’s off to the races, letting me know that being a pastor’s wife is different than being a pastor. He knows, because of his son.

My face is hot with anger now. I wish I could shrug him off. Who cares what he thinks? I REALLY wish I didn’t care. But, I do. So for the third time, I tell him that I am a pastor. When he still doesn’t get it, it would be comical, if I weren’t upset. Then his wife interrupts him, puts her hand on his forearm until he looks at her face, and says slowly and patiently, “She is a pastor too.”

He looks at me, blankly. “But you’re just an associate, right?”

I practically run from the market. My cheeks feel like a pair of tomato pincushions, being pricked by a hundred needles. In my head, I list my accomplishments and achievements. I was a good student in seminary. I have written books. I speak at conferences. Important people have said nice things me.

On one hand, people should listen to me, in spite of my resume. On the other hand, I feel like he just erased twenty-two years of preparation and service. Then, I begin to add up all the other slights. I know it’s just my over-inflated ego. I know I should just be happy serving Jesus, but I want them to quit ignoring me. I want them to stop deferring all of their questions to my husband. I want them to know that my opinion matters too.

But most of all, I REALLY wish I didn’t care. 

Carol Howard Merritt is author of Tribal Church and cohost of God Complex Radio. Her blog is hosted by the Century.