“So what do you want to be doing?” my brother-in-law Jorge asked as we dialogued about my future on the first day of 2014. We’ve been processing life around this time of year ever since, at fourteen, I bundled up to help Jorge install a car stereo for my sister in the dead of winter. We’ve trimmed trees (his not mine), researched car insurance (mine not his), tiled bathrooms, and organized financial clutter. Yet, the clutter he is most skilled at organizing is the clutter in my head.
It makes sense, as this is the brother-in-law who was clever enough to marry my sister Susannah. A woman who is so strong and adventurous that she packs up her children into their own little backpacks and travels around another part of the world three months of every year. The sister who on my 31st birthday, and the eve of my departure for two months on Eleuthera, raced around DC to find me my favorite tea; the tea that can only be found in a few places in the United States; the tea that reminded me that I was deeply loved, as it slowly steeped while I collected the chicken eggs each morning.
These are great people to walk through life together, and they’ve been part of a healthy, thriving church in DC for almost as long as they’ve been together. So when I talk work and church with Jorge, I know that his bar is set pretty high, which makes me a bit nervous to discuss my idea of ministry, but I gave it a shot anyway.
What do I want to be doing?
I want to be cultivating creative love. I want to be a part of a team of mature and committed individuals that is doing ministry wholeheartedly, not living by formulas or legislation but by adventure and courage. I do not want my life to be so taken up with administrative tasks that there is no time or energy for creative tasks. I believe that creativity – the need to create – is the starting point of the gospel, and that each time we find ourselves in the depths of despair, God responds, “Behold, I am making all things new.” There are few phrases in the scriptures that I love more than that. I believe that being the church means being a body, which means always moving, always growing, always changing, always daring. I do not believe in a church that behaves like a wall, that digs in its heels, or that fears the unknown.
I want to be a part of a community of people that is becoming whole. A community where wholeness flows not from any formula or program, but from each individual’s search for and experience of intimacy with God; an intimacy that fills them with a conviction that they are deeply and unconditionally loved. I want to see a church that is healthy not out of fear but out of hope. A church where clergy are becoming healthy because they are hopeful and happy, not because of guilt and pressures over high cost of health insurance. A church where we are becoming financially healthy because we are spiritually healthy, not because we stress over unfunded pensions and denominational overhead. A church that is not seeking young clergy because we fear being swept away by the “Death Tsunami,” but because we sincerely desire and are seeking to bring hope to my generation. I want to be a part of a church that is thriving not as the path to surviving, not as the alternative to death, not as the option to defeat; but thriving because that is the natural state when you are doing ministry joyfully and daringly.
I want to bring together people who would not normally be in a room together, but need to be if they are going to become whole. I do believe that each of our wholeness, happiness and calling is caught up in others and as a result connected to our role in a community. As a result, I believe that the kinds of communities that we create and choose to be a part of are vitally important to the health of our hearts and the world. I am convinced that central to the church’s identity is its role as a unifier and reconciler. However, I also believe that those words do not come cheap; I believe that compromise is the other side of unity, and that justice is inseparable from reconciliation. I believe that in order to carry any of that work out, you need people who are honest enough to see their own flaws and complicity with injustice, humble enough to repent, and courageous enough to forgive. I believe that that kind of work is excruciating in its painfulness, and breathtaking in its beauty, and the only thing worth doing. I believe at the core of my being that the purpose of the church is not to bring together people whose similarities are obvious, but to draw together those who must seek to find their commonalities – common passions which once found will change the world.
When I lived in Delaware we started that kind of work with a simple idea – gather interesting and diverse young leaders; in unusual and unexpected locations; to meet with an experienced urban leader, and discuss their work and their faith and how the city could be a place of shalom. There was food of course, not because I am Methodist but because we had hungry young adults coming straight from work. They were some of the most diverse and interesting conversations I have ever experienced. Taking place during the height of Occupy, it was especially delightful to see leaders of Occupy Delaware pass the salt and pepper to the banking analysts and investors that Wilmington is known for. Those who were insightful enough, quickly realized that one of the most intriguing leaders there was not an invited guest but our chef, who would deliver the food to each of the different corners of the city that we found to gather. Within a few months we would see Maria Cabrera go from catering chef and entrepreneur to the first Latina elected to the City Council of Wilmington. To this day, one of the most inspiring women I know.
I want to be a part of a community where the first thought that people have when they hear another language being spoken is not “immigrant” but friend, and not “illegal” but “family.” People who understand that if they let a thing like language or borders, or even race or gender, be more important to them than faith and humanity, then they are still living in a post-Tower of Babel world, rather than a post-Resurrection world. Jesus did not speak English, and he probably did not prefer Greek or Latin or any of the languages of Empire in that day; he likely mainly spoke Aramaic – the language of the conquered and oppressed ethnic minority to which he belonged. I want to be a part of building the kind of community that Jesus would feel welcome entering. I want to be a part of a church where people are treated with love, hospitality and respect regardless of what they sound like, look like, or even smell like.
I want to help empower young adults to stop complaining that the church has hurt them, or has no place for them, and instead start to do something about it. I want to help them to see that no one can keep them from being the church but themselves. Yes, Christians say some awful things. Yes, entrenched leaders make it difficult for authentic and transformative new voices to be heard. Yes, the people that call themselves the church will break your heart. None of those things can stop you from living out your faith and being the church that God loves and the world needs. You are water and you flow around obstacles, you don’t stop. You are fire and you glow like an ember, biding your time until new fuel comes and kicks your energy skyward. You are salt and your very presence changes the whole chemistry and flavor of things. You are light and just a speck of you is enough to help others find their way home. If there is not a place for you, make one. If there is not a church for you, create one. If there are not any seats left at the table, it is time to add some. Find your own place, make your own church, use your own voice. I want to help my generation see the church not as an institution, not as “the Man”, not as something that is beyond their control but as something that is within their reach. I know that my generation has the creativity, the passion and the courage to see a new future for the church beyond being an institution “having the form of religion but not the power.”
I want a church where there are older members who do not complain that people are just waiting for them to die, because they have realized that they have a role in making the church the kind of community where people want to be – the kind of community that will continue after them. Wise members who understand that it doesn’t matter if you can keep the church from changing, if nobody is going to be left to fill it after you are gone. Faithful members who know that the next chapter does not start after they depart, it starts as soon as they have the courage to write something different on the page. Creative members who know that dying is not the thing to fear, but rather not truly living while God still gives you breathe. Listening members with ears to hear, who as a result find themselves being heard. May all barriers come down, all walls crumble, and all of us breathe easier as we find there is enough space in God’s abundant heart for each of us.
I never want to be a “yes man.” I will always be the person who asks not just what to do, but why we should do it. If the reason has more to do with institutional survival, than it does with scriptural faithfulness, I do not want to do it anymore. I have been gifted with the mutual trust and respect of many of my peers, and I believe that we have within our midst the human resources to do something profoundly faithful and daring. I want to see that day come.
I want to serve a church that is known for living love, rather than debating love. A church where love is the first priority. I do not want any qualifiers on that love like “tough” – that express our unwillingness to practice simple love and our attempt to retain our role as judge, jury and executioner. Love can be strong without being judgmental. I have corrected my niece and nephew enough to know the mixture that inspires rather than condemns. These are the kinds of qualifiers I want to see: Simple love. You-don’t-have-to-earn-it love. The-question-of-whether-or-not-you-deserve-it-would-never-even-arise love. Same love. Determined love. I-won’t-give-up-on-you love. If-you-are-as-I-am-give-me-your-hand love. Unconditional. Unearned. Unmerited. Undeserved, and yet not making you feel undeserving, love. Reveal-your-beauty-like-a-mirror love.
I want to preach, write and talk about love, justice, hope, healing, and faith. I want to live with joy and courage and find others who do also. I want to be geographically adventurous, emotionally courageous, strong in spirit, and restrained in words.
As Jean Vanier would say, I don’t just seek my own wholeness, I want to see your beauty and reveal it to you.