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What We Learned at the Wedding

CakeThere was a wedding in our backyard over the weekend and now We Have Advice.   After experiencing their own (or their children’s) weddings from engagement to honeymoon, people often believe they are expertly qualified to counsel others in their own nuptial planning.  Speaking as the mother of the groom, I believe there is something to this.

The personal experience of planning a wedding changes a person.  These are among the things we learned:

  1. Everyone advises that “when people volunteer to help, let them” but there is something helpful and holy about mundane wedding tasks. Picking up ten gallons of sweet tea can obviously be done by the someone other than the groom’s mom.  But I learned that a) when the wedding is at your house, you have no place to retreat and so a car trip feels like a little break.  And b) I was thinking about the cultures that encourage people – in times of death – to build their own loved ones’ caskets, wash their own loved ones’ bodies, and dig their own loved ones’ graves.  Although marriage is mostly not about loss, it’s incredibly meaningful to do some of the dirty work ourselves in order to process things.  We could sit back and direct the work.  But schlepping tables and lugging bags of ice makes it real.
  2. You will always need more ice.
  3. Don’t assume everybody knows the expectations.  What exactly does a best man do?  It’s possible that his only point of reference is The Hangover (although for the record, SBC was the perfect Best Man.) If somebody expects X and somebody else expects Y and friction ensues, it’s okay.  But if it really matters, have the “this is what I expect of you” talk several weeks/months before the wedding.
  4.  Take into account cultural differences & refrain from all judgement. (e.g. Having a wedding registry in which the couple picks exactly which bowls they’d like is considered unspeakably tacky in many cultures just as paying the bride cash to dance with her at the reception is frowned upon in other cultures.)  Embrace diversity.
  5. Attention all brides, grooms, & parents: Pick the One Thing you care about the most for this wedding.  One Thing. Be as specific as possible.   Not: “I want everyone to arrive safely.”  But: “I really want Aunt Sophie there even though she’s in a body cast.”  If the bridal bouquet is The Most Important Thing, then by all means make those perfect flowers happen.  Also, make your One Thing known so that others will recognize the centrality of this particular matter.
  6. Accept the fact that something will disappoint you on or around the wedding day.  Then channel your inner Elsa.
  7. Accept the fact that some random action will unnecessarily mess with the beautiful picture in your head of how everything’s supposed to look.  48 hrs before our backyard wedding, the power company people marked our painstakingly manicured  back yard with red spray paint so the tent people wouldn’t cut power lines.  These particular spray paint people clearly do not read Martha Stewart Living.
  8. Invite guests to make music requests when they RSVP.  Thank you to the person who requested “We Are the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.”
  9. Expect very view people to follow RSVP guidelines.  I’ve heard this from hosts who included a self-addressed/stamped envelope, an email address, a phone number, & all the above.  Most people will not tell you if they are attending.  (But thank you, thank you, thank you if you actually RSVP.  We salute you.)
  10. You need one toilet per every 50 people according to the professionals.  A bouquet of eucalyptus tied together with a lovely ribbon makes any Port-A-John smell delightful.
  11. Authentic love is everything.  There’s not a photo booth or monarch butterfly release on earth that will make a wedding beautiful if the couple is faking it, whether they realize it or not.
  12. Get a fearless eleven year old on the dance floor and set him free.

Image of someone’s One Thing. #BSWedding

Countdown to Matrimony

There will be a wedding in our backyard this Saturday.simple-backyard-wedding-ideas

Of the last eight weddings I’ve attended, not one of those celebrations occurred in a church building.  This even includes weddings featuring brides/grooms who are themselves clergy.  Even devout Christians often choose a non-traditional venue.

There are many reasons for this:

  • It’s less expensive and more convenient to hold one’s wedding and reception in the same location.
  • Gone are many of the judgments about “non-church weddings” because our theology has expanded.
  • A “church wedding” can happen in a field, on a beach, or in a cave for that matter.  What makes it “church” – theologically speaking – is the community surrounding the couple, not the stained glass windows surrounding the couple.
  • Christians who belong to mega-churches often prefer a more intimate sanctuary than an auditorium.

As our FBC and his betrothed prepare for their wedding this Saturday, I’ve often imagined What My Mother Would Say had she lived to see this milestone. Engraved invitations have been replaced by mass printed card stock.  The “save-the-date” announcement was a video.  The gift registry is on Amazon. Professional servers in white jackets were never considered, but instead we will be graced by friends who have volunteered to pour wine and refill sweet tea urns.

Wedding traditions have changed dramatically – in some ways for the better and in some ways for the ridiculous.  Some practices drive me crazy, theologically. (Just say no to individual communion.)  And there are others that make today’s weddings feel much more authentic.

Karl Rahner was right:  when couples marry, they create a new little church. They will do what a church does: have a purpose and a mission and core values. For followers of Jesus, they will worship God, pray for and with each other, serve neighbors, and contribute financially to the poor.  This is what I hope for my own children and their future spouses – that they would get that marriage is not merely about two people being in love.  It’s about two people partnering together to love others and to make the world a little more like heaven.

This is the kind of conversation that’s trickier than the pre-wedding conversation about church building versus beach venue.  Honestly, most of us haven’t got a clue what married life will be like when we stand before God and loved ones and exchange vows.  Where it happens doesn’t matter very much.  How it happens doesn’t matter very much.  But why it happens matters quite a bit.

My posts will be limited this week because I’ll be in swirling in the wedding vortex.  But commentary will surely follow.

Image is not of our backyard, but it will look something like this in my head.

Everybody Needs a Stella

skepticI once knew a soccer mom with whom I spent many weekends watching our daughters play.  She was hilarious and inappropriate. She drank too much.  She wore fun earrings.  I liked her so much.  Let’s call her Stella.

Stella:  So if I walked in your church next Sunday, what would you say that made me take you seriously?

Me:  (Ugh.  Not much?)

I lived in dread that some random Sunday, Stella would show up, sit on a back pew, cross her arms, and give me an irreverent “So, I’m here.  Rock my world” look.

She never did, but the fear made me a better preacher.  I was forced to consider if the message I was sharing was consequential in any way to a skeptical, secular friend.  It kept me from ever preaching a sermon like I heard once, trying to convince us that Jesus rose on a Tuesday, not a Sunday.  (Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.)

Obviously I’ve preached enormous heaps of dross sometimes but the hope is that there has been more gold than dross- thanks be to God.

Nevertheless, everybody needs a Stella to keep us on our toes.

I was asked just yesterday by someone who is not a believer, “What’s the best thing one of the churches you work with does?”  My first thoughts were not “Fill the pews on Sunday” or “Offer excellent music.”  I thought of the church with the safe after-school program in a neighborhood prone to violence.  I thought of the tutoring program that connects hundreds of young adults with local students.  I thought of the food banks and the clothing closets.

Shifts in the 21st Century Church include these:  “consumer Christianity is dying and a more selfless discipleship is emerging” and “attendance no longer drives engagement; engagement drives attendance.” (Carey Nieuwhof)

Especially for Stella and her friends, making a difference in this ridiculously troubled world is the point. We realize gaps in our lives and the need to make a difference.  And doing this in community makes it easier and more meaningful.  And there is a God who created us for good.  And this God is worthy of getting to know and honoring.

Today’s prayer: I believe.  Help my unbelief – especially when I fail to minister to the Stellas in my life.

A Model for Loving our Political Enemy

Picture a Bernie Sanders Democrat happily vacationing with a Donald Trump Republican.  Can you see it?

oil and water

There were four kids in my family of origin and we have turned out pretty well, if you ask me. But we have very different ideas about how the world should be run.  Although raised by the same parents, two of us – and our spouses – self identify as  “liberals” and two of us – and our spouses – self identity as “conservatives.”

Among the topics of conversation last week:

  • “Illegal aliens”
  • The heritage of Confederate flag-waving
  • The notion that “pro-life” must include taking care of babies after they’re born
  • The incidence of violence against women on college campuses
  • “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”

Oh, and we watched the Republican debate together last Thursday night. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Actually it was and that’s not to say that there were not moments when there was strained silence (like that moment when one candidate said that his policy against abortion didn’t include exceptions for rape and incest and that time another candidate announced that he wasn’t sure “we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”)

It’s not easy loving people whose politics are seriously at odds with our own.  We tend to want to lash out verbally at our political enemies.  We judge them for being uninformed or maybe even “unChristian.”

But what if they are in your family?

When Bill Bishop wrote The Big Sort in 2004, he nailed it in his sub-title: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.  We who watch Fox News only talk with other people who watch Fox News.  We who used to get our news from Jon Stewart hang out with other Jon Stewart fans.  We have lost the ability to temper our vocalized opinions because we don’t have to.

We have sorted ourselves in such a way that pretty much everyone in our neighborhoods, our churches, and our social circles believe what we believe, get their information where we get our information, and vote the way we vote.  We are increasingly diverse as a culture but segregated from diversity.  We increasingly “hate” those with whom we disagree even though – at the core – we are not that different.  We love our children.  We want safe neighborhoods.  We bleed the same color of blood.

So how do we express our fury over the way things are – whether we are furious about undocumented workers not paying taxes or we are furious about gun violence against Black citizens or we are furious about budget cuts for critical services while the 1% thrives?

I’m here to tell you that it’s not only possible – it’s rage-melting – to vacation with people whose world view is not like our own . . . if we love them.

How do we express our most heart-felt opinions to someone whose own heart-felt opinions enrage us?  It’s not easy, but here’s a start:

  • Ask questions rather than make accusations.  “What should we do about children born to poor families whose mothers did not or could not choose abortion?”  “How does that candidate’s policies support your understanding of what Jesus taught?”
  • Remember that listening is more than waiting for our turn to talk.
  • Pray for and with those with whom we disagree.
  • Connect where we can.  Do we both have dogs?  Do we both love lasagna?  Honestly – look for any kind of connection and start there. It’s harder to hate someone when you’ve played with her dog or you’ve shared a home-cooked lasagna dinner with him.

I’m grateful for my family and I love them so much that we spend vacation together every summer.  We’ve been doing it for 25 years now.

It’s perhaps the only week of the year when oil and water actually intermingle just a bit.  But maybe this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

Healthy Glow

I’m back from a week at the NC coast with a healthy glow.  ---Yellow-Glow-psd94975

Gone are the days of slathering baby oil on my skin, baking for six hours, and returning home with “a healthy burn.”  My tan will be short-lived but it looks pretty good for a day or so.

Healthy Glow means my very white face looks a tad less pasty, and yet I still rubbed a little color into my cheeks on vacation.  Why not?  The contrast between bronzed and more bronzed defines my cheekbones.  And who doesn’t long for defined cheekbones?

Perhaps you saw this in the Atlantic last week.  Or this a few years ago in the NY Times.  Ugh.

I am a minimal makeup wearer.  (Is that why I’ve never served a large steeple church?  Apparently Proctor and Gamble would say yes.)

I once had a parishioner ask me if I “didn’t wear makeup” for theological reasons.  “You are so brave,” she said, “not to conform to the pressure of wearing mascara.”  Apparently some of us feel pressured to wear mascara?

The truth is that I actually do wear makeup but apparently it looks “natural.”  I have allergies which make mascara a terrible idea.  I try to remember to wear lipstick, but it comes off when I sip water all day.  Whatever.

Personal appearance is A Big Part of success in this world.  A healthy glow helps land the job.

Many Pastor Nominating Committees consider appearance when seeking their next clergy person.  Clergywomen in particular can’t be too good-looking of course.  Healthy, yes.  Glamorous, no.  And confident, spiritually solid PNCs will call the best leader, regardless of appearance.

But mostly, I hope our Pastor Search Committees seek servants with a healthy glow. To be honest, all of us worth our salt are broken/have experienced brokenness.  A large percentage of pastors take anti-depressants.

I want a spiritual leader with a healthy glow, but my hope is that the glow comes something extraordinary and holy.  The best pastors I know have a resilience that comes from having a strong spiritual core.  They trust in Something bigger than themselves.  They do not make ministry about themselves.

Maybe our pastors struggles with an array of imperfections.  But they know how to use even those imperfections for good.

What we need are pastors with a healthy glow.

Vacation = Radio Silence

More posts after vacation.


Not a Bucket List But a . . .

holey bucketWatching Larry Wilmore the other night, he referred to Barack Obama’s last year as President as a period during which the President seems less concerned with his Bucket List than his (2 words that rhyme with Bucket) List.  This is a family blog and so I’m not going to spell out what I’m talking about but we could call it the @*#^ -It List.

The notion of a Bucket List has always bothered me.  Bucket Lists seem to create more obligations and competition than necessary.

Instead, a more spiritual plan seems to be the @*#^-It List.  Again, I don’t mean to be vulgar.  It’s just that shedding burdens or fears or shame or unrealistic expectations seems to be a holy endeavor.  Tossing out what we no longer need feels wonderful.

As we celebrate a wedding in our backyard in a mere 23 days, I am in the perfect frame of mind to embrace this spiritual practice.

What is truly necessary?  What is truly helpful?  What brings people together and what brings unnecessary anxiety.  What needs to be on our @*#^-It List?

Actually, I Don’t Know What It’s Like

Many Paths

A friend of mine is a clergywoman who grew up in the South and her mother died of cancer when my friend was 32 years old.  I am also a clergywoman from the South and my mother died of cancer when I was 32 years old.  We have the same story.

Except, not really.  We certainly share a bond but our stories are totally different.

So consider the ridiculousness of trying to convince someone that “I know what it’s like” to give birth to twins or have a parent in prison or grow up with brown skin or lose a leg in Afghanistan when nothing like that has ever been part of my story.  I have no idea what it’s like to experience those circumstances.

I don’t even know what it’s like for my clergywoman friend from the South whose mother died of cancer when my friend was the same age I was when my mother died of  cancer in the South.  Everybody’s experience is her/his experience.

This reality means that:

  • We are wrong to judge people (“I never would have done that“) because we cannot possibly know the countless factors influencing someone’s decisions.
  • We are wrong to shame people (“She should be ashamed of herself“) – at least in non-egregious situations when no one has been hurt.  We cannot know all the details of someone’s life.
  • We cannot assume that our personal life experience is normative for everyone.  Just because my life has been privileged/miserable doesn’t mean that your life has been like mine.

Of course our sufferings and our joys are to be shared and this is one of the blessings of human life.  Especially in the isolation that is 21st Century life, we in spiritual communities have invaluable opportunities to be that body that encourages shared suffering and joy.  This is one of the marks of the First Century Church.  And it’s one of the marks of a healthy 21st Century Church when people can trust each other with their real lives.

But perhaps the best part of being the church in this way is the opportunity to have variant lives intersect in the hope that we will connect:

Human Being A:     I am having a rough time. My daughter is being bullied.  My marriage is strained.  And I’m scheduled to have a liver biopsy this Tuesday.

Human Being B:      I know exactly how you feel.  I’m right here. Tell me what’s going on.

This is the church.  I don’t know what your life is like.  But I’d like to hear about it. And I’m not going anywhere.

Owning It

In life and in death, we belong to God.

I’m recovering from reading Go Set a Watchman and Between the World and MeCoates (assuming I will ever fully recover) – two books released on the same day with similar themes that you must read if you hope to be an informed human being in our beloved USA.  There.  I said it.

Amidst reading those great books – one fiction and one non-fiction – and in the ongoing conversation with Church People who want to take their congregations and their property and leave denominations that offend their theology, I am pondering ownership today.  We Americans like to own stuff.

God bless Donald Trump who likes to put his name on the stuff he owns (and even when he doesn’t own it anymore, the name stays.)  We in the United States have a strong tradition of claiming property and calling it our own (e.g. Native American land.)  And of course, the most heinous period of our national history involved the evil notion that some people could actually own other people.

When the Southern Presbyterians and the Northern Presbyterians reunited as one denomination (now called the PCUSA) in 1983, some Southern churches chose to leave the PCUSA because – among other things – they would no longer “own” their church property.  In the PCUSA, property is held in trust.  Congregations do not own their own church buildings. But there was a window after the Presbyterian reunion when formerly Southern churches could take action to keep their property and take it to another denomination.  Some Southern churches did leave the denomination, and others tried and failed (like the congregation I served for 22 years.)

Today throughout my denomination, there are still churches hoping  to leave the PCUSA and take their property with them.  Other denominations know this story as well.  Again, some have succeeded and some have not.

But one of the reasons I am jolted by Harper Lee’s first (but published second) novel is because she captures the concept of property.  It’s the story of my people.

As Scout’s Uncle Jack explains it:

“Now at this very minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South’s not ready for it – we’re finding ourselves in the same deep waters.  As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.  I hope to God it’ll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.”  (Note:  it wasn’t.)

“The time-honored, common-law concept of property – a man’s interest in and duties to that property – has become almost extinct.”

Our history and culture involve owning property and the definition of what is and what is not our personal property has changed through the years.

The most privileged in our history are increasingly losing what they believed they owned.  Husbands once owned their wives.  Wealthy farmers once owned their workers.  Parents once owned their children.  And church members once owned their church buildings.  (Some still believe their churches belong to them – and I’m talking here about what actually belongs to God not denominations.)

Here’s the crazy thing – especially for Christians:  This is the opposite of Jesus’ message.  Yikes.    We in the United States – which has been touted as “A Christian Nation” have rarely considered the message of Jesus in the way we’ve built our country.

This is kind of a heavy message for a Monday morning post.  But perhaps this is what we really need to own.

Image of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between Two Worlds.  Check out his interview on The Daily Show.

Who Is My Neighbor? (Wedding Version)

I’ve lived in our current home for about four years and I don’t know our wedding tentgeographic neighbors well/at all.  I frankly know only two households by name and we identify the others by their yards:  the pretty yard, the yard with the bench chained to a tree, the perfect yard.

This was all true until today, that is.

Today, I slipped wedding invitations in the doors of our closest geographic neighbors warning them/informing them that a month from tomorrow, nuptials will be witnessed in our backyard with 100+ of our best friends and family.

There will be extra traffic (“but we expect little to no parking on the street because a shuttle will be transporting people to and from a parking lot a mile away“) and there will be music (“but we will be quiet by 10 pm so you can get to sleep.”)  But my mother always taught me that it’s good to include the neighbors when having a party so they don’t 1) feel left out and 2) call the police.  I included my email address and phone number if they’d like more information.

About an hour after my delivery, I received a call from an elderly neighbor who was delighted to be invited and – although her grown son who lives with her cannot make it – she’ll be there!  (When you invite the neighbors, it’s important to remember that they might accept the invitation.)  She shared her life story including:

  • her career as a teacher,
  • how she met her husband,
  • how he died,
  • the conversation with her priest in Chicago about where her Protestant husband might be buried,
  • where all her children and grandchildren now live,
  • her relationship with (all) the former owners of our home,
  • how much she likes to dance.

This is going to be an excellent wedding.