And yes, I’m ranting.

Here’s what I need you to know right now.
I can’t stop talking about this. I tried. I tried to talk and write about one of the other 9 billion causes I care passionately about. But my fingers felt heavy and my words felt far too light. Our city, my new city, the place where God has asked me to live and serve and plant roots and raise my kid, is cracking and steaming and crumbling and folding all at the same time, and in fifteen different directions. It’s happening in the church I serve, in my kid’s school, at every meeting, on every social media page, at the gas station, grocery store, coffee shop, and every fast food restaurant I frequent. Oh, and I frequent them. Because I have to get up from my desk because my head is exploding with every story I read of every violation, of every abuse, of every disrespect, every injustice, every outrage, of every frat boy singing, every federal government reporting, and every gun shot and unarmed black teen murdered by someone sworn to protect him. My heart is breaking anew each day. I cry out, O Lord, how long? How long will we allow this to go on? How long will we sit silent, being nice and avoiding conflict? How long will it take to convince all people that BLACK LIVES MATTER? That the legal penalty for petty theft or resisting arrest is not DEATH? That people who are mentally ill deserve help and not handcuffs? That there are good cops who make smart decisions NOT TO SHOOT PEOPLE every day? And that the ones who can’t make smart decisions shouldn’t be given guns? That white privilege needs to be checked? Including mine. Especially mine. Oh, and how every new day brings another horrible, rage inducing story. So, no, I can’t stop talking about it. Yeah, I am gonna be that girl. You’ll want me to move on. Or to give it a rest. I want me to move on. I really want to stop talking about this. But I can’t. We can’t. We mustn’t. So I need you to know that I’m going to keep bringing it up. And I will listen to you. Wherever you are. Even if you totally disagree with me. Especially if you totally disagree with me. But we’ve got to keep working on it. We’ve got to keep talking about it. We’ve got to. ALL of us. Until the system is fixed. Until the issues are exposed. Until the children feel safe. Until the body count stops. Until saying something like “Black Lives Matter” is no longer controversial.

#InternationalWomensDay

I’m a woman.
And a feminist.
I am a parent.
Of a girl.
And the daughter.
Of a single mom.
And a sister, to many moms.
A friend to even more moms.
And to non-moms.
And to grandmoms.
To lots of women.
Because I love women.
All kinds of women.
I love the history of women.
Bad-ass women.
Women who said NO.
Women who said NO MORE.
Women who said, Get out of my way.
Women who said, I think I can.
Women who said, Watch me.
Women who didn’t say a word.
Women who took action.
I celebrate these women.
Every day.
I celebrate them in worship.
In books.
In writing.
In person.
I don’t need one day.
Because I MUST celebrate them every day.
Because I must share their stories every day.
Because I must look up to them every day.
Because I need their strength.
Because I am a woman.
And a feminist.
And I have a bad-ass young woman to raise.

Called Out.

Called Out.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
Texts: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,  O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

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I called my mom last night. I had been checking out some of the coverage from the Selma 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. of that day when civil rights protesters and police in Alabama met on a bridge, and violence was the victor. She wasn’t there. At the time, she was at home, six or seven states away. She was at church that day. And although my parents have always shared with me stories of their experiences during this tense time in our nation’s history, I couldn’t remember my mother ever specifically speaking of this day, I couldn’t remember her telling me how she saw Selma. So I called and asked her about what she remembered from that time.

 

Now, if you promise not to do the math to figure out her current age, I will tell you that at the time my mom was 26 and living in Bethesda, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. She told me how watching the images of that day on tv, brought the reality of what was happening into her living room. How she could see that violence, right there, in her living room and how it was so completely unavoidable.

She remembered the call going out to “outsiders” the next day, and especially to white clergy, to join in the protest. She told me about going to church, the church she grew up in, Bethesda Presbyterian Church, an all white church just outside of Washington DC, and hearing her minister, Rev. Dr. Carl Pritchett, tell the congregation that he was going to Selma. She remembered the controversy. She remembered that some in the church supported him and that others felt he was out of his mind. Who felt betrayed. He was a southerner, born in North Carolina, how could he be doing this? How could he be speaking out in this way? He caused division, my mother remembered. But she remembered how he told them that he felt called by his conscience and by his God to go and stand for justice. So he went. Dr. Pritchett marched in Selma. He went on, and he organized boycotts and he called the faithful at Bethesda Pres. to participate actively in the Civil Rights movement.

Now, after talking to my mom, I did a little research. Dr. Pritchett was pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian for 19 years, beginning in 1956. But he didn’t start out as an activist. He started out as a southerner, who by the account I read, was a bit of a racist, as he had been raised to be. And when Washington was consumed by the civil rights movement, when the march on washington was called for just two years earlier, Dr. Pritchett was against getting involved. He was clear that marching in the streets was not for him.

That August in 1963, DC area pastors had been asked to house participants gathering for Dr. King’s March on Washington and to feed them. Many had said no. At the time the Presbyterian Church was split in two, the northern PCUSA and the southern PCUS. Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, a PCUS pastor at Washington DC’s Church of the Pilgrims, called his colleagues out. He went to the Presbyterian Outlook magazine and wrote an open letter to his beloved church brothers and sisters saying, “Brethren, all of us must be open to the fresh demands which the eternal Word of God places upon us to be relevant in our ministry to the age in which we live…. One of the crucial problems of our times is racial equality. The church is directly involved in its solution because of the imperatives of the gospel.” This letter from Dr. Taylor was read to the general assembly of the PCUS two days before the March. A prayer service was called for the morning of the march at Dr. Taylor’s church, the Church of the Pilgrims in NW DC. 200 southern Presbyterians, including several ministers, came to that prayer service, including my mother’s pastor, Dr. Pritchett.

Dr. Pritchett hadn’t planned on doing anything more than attending the prayer service. He wasn’t one for violence or marching. He wasn’t one for the streets. But he was moved in that prayer service, he was moved to action. He marched on Washington that day, and it fundamentally changed how he saw the movement, and the church’s role in the movement. He became an activist. He preached the message of justice and equality he found in the gospel. And he called on the Church to see its role in how things were playing out in the streets, he called her out saying, “The Church forced it out in the streets…. if I should ever feel that my place is physically out in the street, it will be because my church has forced me out of the sanctuary…and into the street.”

Being called out by his colleague forced Dr. Pritchett to look at himself and how he was doing church. Forced him to consider which rules he was following and why. And once he had been called out, once he had been transformed by that, he found it is duty to return the favor. To challenge good, faithful, law-abiding church folks to consider how they were being the church.

The good, faithful, law-abiding people of faith at the temple that day in Jerusalem were also trying to follow all the rules. Cesar’s money wasn’t allowed in the temple, with his face on those coins, it wasn’t allowed. So the money changers were there to fix the situation, to turn the money into face-less money that could be properly offered in the temple. For God. They were following the rules.

The animals. The animals were there to be offered as sacrifices. There needed to be a space to clean them off after a long, dusty walk to the temple. They needed to be spotless and clean in order to be sacrificed.The doves were being sold to people who were too poor to have animals to offer. But all this was in accordance with the tradition and expectation and the way that you knew to be a good and faithful person of God. That’s why they were there.

The people were following the rules.

The temple, it was being improved, enlarged. Made to accommodate more. So that more could come and honor God. So that more could do the right thing. So the space would be more beautiful. To honor God. All to do the right thing, the faithful thing, to honor God.

These good people of faith were all following God’s rules.

But they were missing the point.

And Jesus was there to tell them just that.

Jesus was there to call them out. Because they were missing the point.

We all need to be called out every now and again. We need that accountability. That parent’s eyebrow raised as if to say, “are you sure you wanna do that?” That teacher saying, “you can do better.” That teenager asking, “well, what did you do when you were my age?” That toddler questioning, “what does that word mean, daddy?” That federal government report stating in black and white, “this city has a race problem, this police department has a race problem.” Our president saying, “What’s our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?” And our God, who came to us in the flesh, flat out saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Our God who came to us to say, this is not the temple. This building and it’s walls. This set of rules and rituals. They may be tools and building blocks to your faith but I am the way and the truth and the light. I am the temple. I am the active presence of God that you seek. I am the relationship you are looking for. I am the way. And I will be destroyed but in three days I will raise it up. For you.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez tells us that “The active presence of God in the midst of the people is a part of the oldest and most enduring biblical promises.” He traces this pattern through the covenants that we’ve been reading these past few weeks. The active presence of God as witnessed in rainbows and generations, in commandments and mountaintops, in burning bushes and prophet voices. But everything changed when the active presence of God became human flesh and walked among us, taught us, healed us, and called us out.

So today I ask all of us, where is the active presence of God calling to us? And what is Jesus calling us out on?

Update: Not sure why I can’t seem to figure out how to get my citations to paste over into the wordpress format, but here they are, in order, but not attached. Sorry!

1. “A Brief Spiritual Biography of Bethesda Presbyterian Church” as posted on http://bethesdapresbyterian.org/about/#ChurchHistory_anchor (accessed 3/7/2015)

2. Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement by Elaine Allen Lechtreck p.101-110. 2008.

3. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez, 15th Anniversary Ed. p. 106. 1988.

That Time (or How to survive the call search process and keep your sanity, friends, and faith!)

It is that time. There are a couple hundred of you out there right now who are in that time. The time of the almost-graduate. If you have registered and begun your final semester of seminary and you have already applied to graduate and may have even ordered your cap and gown, you’re in that time. If your parents have hotel reservations and you are starting to figure out dinner plans for 40, you are in that time. If you are in that time, you may or may not be going to classes and writing papers, but NO DOUBT you are working your almost-MDiv ass off TRYING TO FIND A JOB and get ordained and receive your magic pastor hands and finally, finally start doing the work you’ve been taking out loans in order to study and learn and practice and take exams and prepare to do called to do! Oh yes, you are in that time.

Last year, when I was in that time, I used to tell people that no one in our denomination should have to take ordination exams. If you survive the call search process with your sanity, friends and faith intact, they should ordain you on the spot. Our call process is a beautiful, faithful, fair, orderly, grueling, terrifying, unpredictable, exhausting, holy, horrible, affirming process. In other words, it totally prepares you for ministry. You’ve survived years of preparation, study, examination, evaluation, oh, and prayer, only to have to kinda do it all over again. There are So. Many. Forms. You describe your whole life’s story and faith journey in two sentences or less about 19 different times. You write five short answers and send them to 45 churches in which you are kinda maybe interested. You read the perfect position description that God clearly had a committee write just for you, spend three days carefully crafting the most brilliant, funny, and pastoral cover letter ever written only to find out they voted on a candidate last weekend. You interview on over-stuttered skype connections and on cell phone calls in your car in the parking lot outside your field ed placement. You and your two best friends fall in love with the same congregation. And there’s only one position. There is nothing, nothing, nothing in the state where your family lives and your spouse has a job offer, but there are 97 small calls in Alaska and all the states you never wanted to live in ever. You pray and hear nothing. You wait. And you wait. And you refresh your screens and accounts and wait some more. People start getting offers while you wait. You try to be happy for them, but you start freaking out because the Housing Director IS going to kick your holy, MDiv-holding rear out of that apartment come June whether you have something resembling a job and an apartment and a hint of a plan or not.

It is hard.

But when you find the right place, and the people there love you and can’t wait to start working with you, when you sense a nudge from God and committee, and your family is excited, when you make the move and settle in, and when your new church family gather to lay their hands on you in that installation prayer, well, it’s pretty great. It’s cliche and ridiculously cheesy, but it is so worth the wait, the awkward conversations, the disappointment, the rejection, and the horror of writing of your own bio 76 times.

So here are my tips to get through it. I guess, technically, I’m no expert. But, I am working as a pastor and I stayed friends with my people and with God. So, I count it as a win.

1. Breathe. You will survive this. If you freak out, sometimes you forget to breathe. Don’t forget. Breathe. It’s important.

2. Pray. For you, for your friends who are also searching, for the church you will serve (wherever it is), for the churches that want you but you do not want, for the churches you want who will pass on you (yes, even awesome you, I don’t know what they’re thinking either!), for those who you’ve listed as references (please say awesome things, please), for your family, for God to MAKE THINGS CLEAR. Just pray. A lot. All the time.

3. Talk to your seminary friends. Be real, real honest. Agree up front to support each other. Agree up front not to compete. A wise pastor told me the story of when she and a colleague were up for the same job. Instead of being secretive and competitive, they agreed to both go for it supporting one another. They prayed about it together, they looked at how each would be great at the job and encouraged the other to share specific strengths. They were able to stay friends throughout the process. I lived that advice and it made my relationships stronger.

4. Figure out what you need. Do you need to talk things through with family or process a bit on your own first? Does it help to have friends grill you with questions, or do you have a trusted mentor to run something by? Figure out what will help you discern and what will make you feel supported. Then TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU NEED. Then listen when they tell you what they need, too.

5. Go to the movies. Lay on the beach. Do something silly and fun and take a break. Do this sometimes with your family. Do this sometimes with your seminary friends. Ban call-search conversation for one day. Enjoy the break. Don’t feel guilty. You need breaks.

6. Do your research. Don’t just read the position description. Dig deeper. The internets will help. Check out the church’s website and social media pages. How often are they updated? What kinds of things to they share? Can you find their newsletters, sermons, worship bulletins, and annual reports online? You will learn so much more about a church with this info. Check out neighboring churches and neighborhood groups. Get the vibe of the community. Call the references, but also call people not on the reference list. You are going to move your life to join the life of this congregation. Try to know as much as you can about them!

7. Develop a good set of interview questions that dig deep. You are checking them out as much as they are checking you out. Ask about the problems and the drama and debates. Ask how they resolve conflict. As what their dreams are for the church, for their community, for their pastor. Ask what they expect out of you. Ask how they’ve failed and what they’ve learned. Ask what their successes have been. Ask them why they joined the church, why they volunteered for the committee, and why they keep coming back!

8. When you get to visit with a potential match, know that you are interviewing THE WHOLE TIME YOU ARE WITH THEM. Think about that when you plan what to wear on the plane, what to eat/drink on the plane and at meals with them, casually chatting while riding around in a car touring their city with them for hours. Be yourself- they should know what they are getting- but be your best self, because they are watching everything!

9. Call somebody. When you’re on that all-important visit, take a break at night and call someone to debrief. Or if you’re not a wildly, off-the-charts extrovert and need a break after 14 hours of together group talking time, write some notes in a journal. Not what you liked and didn’t, words that struck you one way or another, things you noticed around the building or the neighborhood, connections made and missed. This stuff starts to blend if you’re juggling multiple interviews or visits or if you’re just a busy, tired, normal seminarian.

10. Remember the love. God loves us, we love God. We all have different ways of showing it. We volunteer for committees, we plan events, we lead bible studies, we work on finances, we upset the system, we tow the line….we all have different ways. Some of the nominating committees will be super organized and professional and others will be scattered and working hard just to understand the process. Just like us seminarians. Lead with grace. Remember that they volunteered to do this. Remember that they’re doing this because they LOVE their church, they LOVE God, and they would LOVE to have an awesome new pastor. When you get frustrated with anyone in the process- committees, friends, references, oblivious first-year students, family, pets, pizza delivery people- watch for that love. Offer grace. And let them offer you grace in the process too.

One day, in the middle of my That Time, when I was certain I was a big, fat phony who was not at all called to ministry who was never going to get a job and had just wasted three years and thousands of dollars on a ridiculously self-indulgent bible study class, a very wise seminary neighbor told me that we never would have made it through 2.5 years of seminary if we hadn’t been called. “Remember Greek?”, she said. Around the same time, a trusted mentor said to me, “God has been with you through this whole process. What makes you think God’s gonna leave you now.” It’s that time. It’s stressful and scary and hard. But you are called. God is with you. The church needs you! Have some chocolate, take a bike ride, watch some online videos of screaming goats, and get back in it. You’re almost there!

(Oh, and I’ll be praying for you and stuff. You got this.)

Call it what it is.

Call it what it is.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO on 3/1/15.
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38

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As part of my training for ministry, I served as a hospital chaplain for three months one summer during seminary. It’s a standard requirement for all pastors in our denomination, and serves a bit like a pastoral care bootcamp. And I learned a whole lot during those three short months in the hospital, but there were two big take-aways that stick with me today.

First, no one in the whole hospital expects chaplains to be funny. They expect you to be nice and holy and boring and sweet but certainly not funny. Not one bit. So when you crack the smallest, corniest, most rehearsed joke ever, they think you’re hilarious. I’m telling you, hospital patients are my people! With a pocket full of stale grandpa jokes, I killed like a comedian on the late night circuit. It got so I had a whole routine. And I had an entire set full of jokes just about hospital socks. I’m telling ya, there wasn’t a room I couldn’t get into by asking if they knew they had to give the socks back (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

The second thing I learned working as a hospital chaplain was that people in hospitals love them some theology of glory. The theology of glory is what I like to call the 15th Century reformer Martin Luther’s fancy term for spin. Putting a bright spin on dark times. People in the hospital love to do this for the chaplain. “Oh, it’s alright, Chaplain, I mean, it’s been tough, but whatever doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, right?” “I’m sure learning a lot about who my friends really are.” “I am blessed to be in the care of such great staff.” “It’s been good for me to learn to lean on my faith.” And on and on with this stuff.

Oh, and this isn’t just for hospitals. No, we all do it. It’s easier to look ahead to the glory when we’re in the hard times. To make the best of it. To see the silver lining.

But Martin Luther thinks that’s a bunch of hooey. In those famous theses he wrote, he offers a couple that hit on his theology of glory and his theology of the cross. He writes in theses #21: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.”

At the hospital, working as a student chaplain, I felt I only had two jobs.

  1. Tell a silly sock joke to get myself into the room.
  2. Sit beside someone in pain and name it. Tell them it sucks. It’s unfair. It’s frustrating. It’s terrible. It’s painful. It’s horrible. And it just sucks. Be the person who walks in the room and looks them in the eye and doesn’t poke or prod, but sits and names it and allows them to feel whatever they’re feeling; calling it what it actually is.

Oh, how I wish Peter could have done that. I wish Peter could have heard Jesus’ story and said, “Whoa… this is terrible. It’s going to be awful to watch you suffer like that. I just can’t believe this has to happen.”

But Peter couldn’t do that. He couldn’t sit in that dark space. Peter wanted to jump to the glory. Peter didn’t want a suffering, bloody, on the cross Messiah. Peter wanted the healer, the miracle worker, the leader, the glory Messiah.

As modern day followers of Jesus, we want that too. We want to come to worship, and to Sunday school, and to this table and we want to receive the hope of Christ’s resurrection. We want to receive the grace of forgiveness. We want to bask in the risen Lord’s glory. And we should. We totally, absolutely should.

But we also need to remember that it came at the expense of suffering and death on the cross. And that the one who called us to follow, the one who invited us to the table, the one who promises to forgive and pray for us, is the one who suffered so greatly on the cross and called us to carry our own crosses.

Not just to give up chocolate, or deny ourselves facebook for 40 days, but to lose our lives for his sake, for the sake of the gospel.

There’s enough evil and suffering in our world, in our community, in our families and schools and jobs, that I don’t think we have to look too hard to find places where we might be called to pick up our crosses, to drop our own self-interests and carry the needs of a neighbor. Maybe it can be as simple as dropping our own opinions and arguments and listening to the opinions of a neighbor. Maybe we don’t work to win an argument and we just listen to make another feel heard. Maybe it’s letting go of our own political and social agendas, and listening with open ears to Christ’s agenda, sitting before us right here. And maybe it’s just naming the reality of the things that are painful, hard, and evil, and deciding to live in that suffering, not for the glory it will bring, but because that’s what’s real. And knowing that Christ is in that, too.

And here’s some good news: you guys are already doing this! You are here today. You could be home, in warm beds. You could be snuggled up in jammies with warm cups of cocoa. You could be eating breakfast in bed. You could be sledding on Art Hill. You could be at brunch. Do you remember brunch? You gave up BRUNCH. You give up brunch every Sunday!

You shovel, you clean, you wash dishes, you cook, you host mission teams, you give money to the poor, you give food to the hungry. We’ve got a good start.

So this Lent, let us try to see if we can stand it to stand in the suffering and call it what it is. To hold ourselves in such a place where we might be able to recognize the suffering in its full reality, and to recognize Christ in that suffering; to submit to a lifestyle of sacrifice and to recognizing Christ in that sacrifice.

In the name of the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Redeemer, Amen.