Monday, December 03, 2018

This Advent: Snark, Sarcasm, Hospitality, and Inclusion

photo from nationalgeographic.com
There are two spirits within me that, when juxtaposed, can appear as rivals.

The first is generous, warm and welcoming. She reaches out across chasms for human connection. She has endless patience, the capacity to see beyond a person's weaknesses, and will sit for hours listening to those who yearn to be heard. She is grace-filled, hope-filled, peace-filled. In recent years she's done a pretty decent job at showing up when Pastor Taylor is called upon. 

The second is bitter, pissed off, and snarky as all get out. Satire is her language of choice. She gets much of her news from folks like Hasan Minhaj and Trevor Noah. She likes BarbieSaviorRadi-Aid videos and JadedAid, and she thinks Hannah Gadsby is brilliant. She often uses descriptive words unsuitable for respectable newspapers and is so fed-up with the state of the world that sometimes, well, perhaps I should leave her fantasies involving chainsaws and blowtorches unshared.

So which spirit do I feed? BOTH. I feed both. Sheesh. I may be many things, but I don't deliberately kill a piece of myself by starving her to death. 

I have been giving the ethics of snark and sarcasm a lot of thought the past few days, though. Are they at odds with the values of radical hospitality and inclusion, or is there a nuance that needs to be named? I've thought about how ugly snark can appear and the pain I've felt being excluded from specific cliques of snarky folks--even at seminary and church conferences. I also thought about how affirming and invigorating it felt this past year to gain two new snark-filled friendships. So, I sought out some wisdom on the topic from Google, but only found articles about snark and sarcasm as a form of bullying. And that's not the kind of snark I'm talking about. 

I'm not talking about snark as a weapon to tear down the vulnerable, nor am I talking about the snark of insecure teenagers and emotionally stunted adults who think trash-talking everything makes them cool. I'm talking instead about snark and sarcasm as informed critique and an art of resistance- as tools of those who care deeply about issues yet are excluded from the tables where decisions are made. 

The more I thought about this, the more peace I felt about those times when I have been excluded from snarky cliques. My white female privilege has programmed me to expect persons to make room for me, but sometimes I'm not invited into other people's support groups--and that's ok, and it is also ok that the existence of such groups reminds me of things that are not ok. Entrance into the cliques I'm talking about has to be earned the hard way.* For example, when war veterans snark together about problems with the military, they need not feel obliged to pause their moment of commiseration to include me in their conversation. When folks who have experienced marginalization by the church hang out together at conferences and bond through cynical humor, they also aren't morally required to invite others to hang out with them at that very moment. And, on those too rare occasions when I find someone else who is striving to change the mission models of her/his community of origin and laments about the feeling of screaming into the wind, it is ok to walk off to a quiet corner together and crack jokes that are only funny to us. Because some shared frustrations are so intense that you can either laugh or cry about them, and it feels amazing to find someone(s) with whom you feel safe to do both. 

Exclusive support communities and a praxis of radical inclusion aren't intrinsically at odds with each other. It is in such exclusive communities that people who would otherwise feel on their own find a place where they are included and their laments are affirmed. And through this sense of inclusion, they can then find the emotional energy to reach out across boundaries in prophetic ways.      
   
So what makes this an Advent reflection? Advent is the season of waiting and hoping for an end of sorrow and the birth of a new reality. It is a time of wrestling with the tensions of inclusion, exclusion, justice and compassion. It is also the one time of year when Protestants talk about Mary and Elizabeth. 

And so, I think I'll close with Eugene H. Peterson's telling of Luke 1:39-56. I encourage you to re-visit it through the lens of support groups, social critique, and a message of hope-filled anticipation spoken by a marginalized woman who is both pissed off and grace-filled.


Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
    and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
    the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
    greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
    skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
    believed every word would come true!
 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.


  *For more on this, read also Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria      

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thanksgiving and the Gift of the Existential Crisis


I had an existential crisis last week. This isn’t unusual for me. In fact, it was entirely predictable considering my life recently. Within the past month I submitted my doctoral thesis, was recruited for some exciting regional teaching/speaking gigs on the topic of missiology, and I found out that, instead of staying state-side for at least a few years as I had expected, we’re moving to Ljubljana in 7 months.* Cue the anxiety attack. 

Now I know what some of you may be thinking, “Ah, poor thing has to move to a picturesque European town where she can easily do day trips to the mountains or drive to other picturesque bucket-list towns. Must be hard.”  But it is hard. I love my house, my neighbors, my church, E’s school, and the joys that come from living relatively near family and so many old friends. It’s hard to imagine the grass being greener anywhere else. ‘Cause, see, here’s the cold truth: while my Facebook photos the past decade may have given the impression that I’ve been “living the dream” overseas for years, those posts only showed the highs—not the lows—of what it means to be a global nomad. This past year state-side I’ve lived what most of my readers would view as a rather unremarkable middle-class life, yet it has been bliss for me. Leaving it behind means I must overhaul my plans, revisit difficult questions about identity and purpose, and start over in a country where I don’t yet have a single friend. 

My father’s 2017 death made it gut-level clear to me that life passes quickly and can end in a blink. What criteria are we to use to judge if we are using our limited days on Earth well? What does work-life balance look like to someone who doesn’t have a traditional job with clear on-off the clock lines? On a scale of hedonist to burned-out social worker, how much time should we devote to improving the world vs. sipping our favorite beverage in our favorite locale? Is a Doctor Who marathon a waste of a day?**

Two things helped me snap out of this thought spiral. A former congregant reached out to me for advice about what turned out to also be an existential crisis triggered by a life transition. I listened and then gave some coaching about praying, journaling and listening to one’s inner wisdom—all wrapped up in the message that existential crises should be embraced as opportunities to listen to what God may be inviting us to do next. My inner voice said “Uh, Taylor? Why don’t you try practicing what you preach?” 

The second head smack moment came when I found myself at a youth service on Sunday, and a friend passed out notebooks and encouraged everyone to not necessarily use them as gratitude journals, but to be present to wherever we may be at the moment—even if that means using them as blank coloring pages instead of writing words. I colored my page blue until my mind came to my sermon about the fundamental problem of the human condition being isolation. Then it hit me: What different questions would my existential crises produce if I truly understood my isolation as my primary issue instead of trying to measure my success/productivity/contributions in life?  Hmph. 

I’m still wrestling with that question, but I know some things already. It would mean prioritizing being a good friend over “being successful.” It would mean crossing boundaries for the sake of no longer being alienated and seeing folks of all life circumstances not as people to serve but as sisters and brother who are vital to my wholeness. 

So here’s my two cents this Thanksgiving. Reach out to others. Reach out to family, to friends, to strangers. Give thanks for the healthy relationships you have. Give yourself permission to lament for the ones you don’t. Cross socio-economic and cultural boundaries not with an agenda to serve others, but for the chance to become more integrated into the web of the Kingdom of God.  And next time you find yourself receiving the gift of the existential crisis, embrace it.

Happy Thanksgiving my beloveds.

Taylor
Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo from danflyingsolo.com 

*My husband, a career diplomat, is to be the next American Consul there. It is his job that makes it financially possible for me to dedicate so much of my time to researching, writing, and coaching on transformative missional practices. 

**That’s a rhetorical question. Watching Doctor Who is never wasting time. It’s therapeutic and a highly useful morality discernment tool.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Helping Siblings in Need: a 1 John 3:16-18 sermon


The following is an excerpt from a lectionary sermon I gave on 1 John 3:16-24.

Rethinking Mission: Helping Siblings in Need

Today’s scripture reading from the lectionary addresses an important yet uncomfortable topic. I’d venture to say that most of us are familiar with John 3:16—perhaps you can even recite it.  That’s the one that starts “For God so loved the world.”  But 1 John 3:16—probably not so much.  So let’s pause a moment and tune our ears to hear verses 16-18 again:

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 

Wow. I wish that 1 John 3:16 were as well known and often recited as John 3:16. There is so much to unpack here, and the rest of that chapter packs quite a punch too. 

It is easy to intellectualize a question to the point of inaction. Under what circumstances should we lay down our lives for another? How literally are we talking?  What sort of help are we to give to those in need and how much exactly? I mean, if I gave money to every person in need I encountered, then wouldn’t I become the one in need?  

Theologian Samuel Wells made an assertion in a sermon called Rethinking Service that I believe is the key to transforming the kind of questions we ask and thus resulting in qualitatively different responses to when we see a sister or brother in need. Wells challenges our cultural assumption that mortality is the essential problem of human existence. When we think that death is the ultimate problem, we focus on attempting to solve issues that lead to an early death: malnutrition, sickness, lack of adequate housing or physical safety. And, yes, these are real problems which we are called to respond to, but not for the reason we tend to think.

When we view death as the fundamental thing to avoid, we structure our service and missional work with that narrow view. A town lacks clean water?  Dig a well! A hungry woman begging on the sidewalk? Give her food!  A young man needs surgery but has no health insurance? Launch a Kickstarter.  It’s not that such responses are inherently wrong, but do they come out of seeing the deeper need? Do they respond to the root problem or just its symptoms?

What if—What if we viewed the primary problem of the human condition that we seek to alleviate as isolation—that is, the problem of not recognizing that we belong to one another—of not feeling beloved?  How would that change our understanding of what it means to love our sisters and brothers in need in truth and action? 

My Great-Grandma Jessie was a feisty woman. Being twice widowed, she knew a thing or two about what really matters. One day a sister-in-law came to her and said that Jessie’s two daughters were in grave risk of eternal damnation for they’d been seen wearing shorts.  “Well,” said Jessie “Guess I’d better buy me some shorts.” Grandma Jessie understood something profoundly important.  The most important question isn’t where we are going; it is who is going to be there with us. 

My late father understood that too. Year after year he would gather a team of Congolese pastors and lay leaders and they would travel thousands of kilometers by bicycle deep into remote areas that had been decimated by violence and its after effects. Yes, the communities needed clean water, and medicine and food security and all the other things that pop into your mind. But what struck Dad the most when he sat and listened deeply to the United Methodist pastors appointed to these communities—the thing that was underneath all of the laments he heard—was the feeling of being forgotten—of being abandoned, discarded by the church and outside world as if they held no sacred worth. 

Wells warns us that when we place our focus on alleviating mortality, we actually heighten isolation. Who of us here has ever received a gift that, while well-intentioned, left us feeling “Oh. You really don’t know me, do you?”  Are there some among us who have hosted a party or family gathering and worked so hard at offering hospitality that when the guests finally left you felt emotionally drained, having spent most of the time alone in the kitchen instead of in quality conversations?  You see, the problem goes both ways.  Much has recently been written on how popular efforts to give people things that they need to survive strip recipients of their dignity and their sense of belonging.  Giving to such initiatives may lessen our feeling of guilt, but they don’t fill the void within us; they don’t address our need to fully belong.

Belonging. Being seen and valued. Being fully accepted by an ever-expanding community that loves so deeply that they yearn to be there for each other—to laugh and cry together, to check in on each other, to share gifts, even to be willing to lay down their lives for each other---that is what God’s love abiding in humanity looks like.  That is what we strive to be for each other and the world outside our doors.  A community that does not think in terms of “us” helping “the needy” but as all of us together on this swirling blue marble we call Planet Earth, each with our own specific spiritual and material needs and gifts---recognizing the sacred worth of every person, and every tree, river and animal.

Sisters and brothers:  This is the love that calls to our innermost being. And this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Amen




Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Our Mission Together: Remembering Bob and Next Steps



The following is the text of the speech I gave before the open discussion at the Bob Memorial Breakfast at The UMC's Indiana Annual Conference: June 7, 2018.


On behalf of all of team FPM and my family, I thank you for coming this morning. Rev. Glen Robyne contacted me right after Our Life Together in February saying that he and a group of clergy colleagues had hatched the idea of a Biking Bob memorial breakfast during Annual Conference as a chance to gather together and talk about what’s next for the movement. Long story short, here we are—a beautiful sight indeed—and I’ve been asked both as Bob’s daughter and as the president of Friendly Planet Missiology to share some wisdom he taught me and to talk about ways we all can apply Friendly Planet’s missiology here in Indiana.

My father loved strategy games and logic puzzles—Solitaire, Spider, Mine Sweeper. He was unbeatable at Euchre and Risk due to his ability to see past the surface and understand the underlying system and mathematical probabilities at play.  He even insisted that mastering Monopoly would somehow make me a wiser person. I suspect he could had been successful as a professional gambler, although casinos would have quickly branded him a card counter, which frankly, he was.

Dad truly was a gambler.  He took a gamble on underdogs and congregations in crisis.  He took a gamble on working with The United Methodist Church and church leaders in Congo. He bet on the long game, knowing that he may die before the payout came.  

Dad taught me that some truths are universal, and some are not—and that which is which is often counterintuitive. Everywhere he traveled he saw that people yearn for acceptance, validation, appreciation—the assurance that they aren’t alone. He taught me that while shared interests and values are factors in building friendships, when it comes down to it, people like people who like them. That was perhaps the true secret behind his miraculous ability to bring diverse groups of people together and to form alliances across political and cultural divides. Dad looked for the good in people and found it in surprising places. He believed that if colleagues in Congo could build peace by making pastoral visits to notorious warlords, then folks in the Indiana Conference could take a page out of that playbook and be boldly prophetic as well. 

Dad will be remembered for many things; stories of his bicycle journeys to visit the pastors and lay leaders of remote seemingly-forgotten congregations in Katanga have already become the stuff of legend. But what few realize is that what he did in Congo, he was doing in Indiana too. He quietly rode all over the Indiana Conference—meeting clergy one by one in local lunch spots.  He listened to their laments and coached them through their discernment process. He was a pastor for pastors.  

When the Friendly Planet board started talked about next steps in this post-Biking Bob reality, we talked about a number of priorities:  1) The continuing relationship with our North Katanga and Tanganyika Conference colleagues and supporting their initiatives—from women’s empowerment centers to church and school construction to university scholarships to, of course, bicycles.  2)  The mission to teach individuals and congregations healthier mission models—through books, blogs and educational gatherings in addition to modeling our missiology in Indiana, Congo and wherever else the Spirit leads us.  3) Implementing our mission model in concrete ways here in Indiana.

Out of this was born the vision of the Indiana Circuit Riders, who take their inaugural ride this morning. In a nod to the circuit riding Methodist preachers of the past, these circuit riders are committed to the sacred task of itineration. The formula is straightforward:  Pick a church leader who you suspect could use a boost, ride out as a team to visit her or him, and then, in Methodist fashion, eat a meal together while swapping stories and giving words of empathy and encouragement. You don’t even have to be a cyclist to join—just show up at the chosen restaurant, church or picnic spot or volunteer to pick-up any riders who tucker out mid-way.  It may seem like a small thing, but let me tell you—to that pastor who was wondering if anyone even noticed or cared about the sacrifice they were making, it is huge, and the ripple effects are even larger.

You want to know how to be a disciple of Christ who participates in the transformation of the world?  Start locally. Start by looking around your town, your district, your conference, or your denomination (the world keeps getting smaller) and taking notice of the other folks working in the trenches of ministry—be it leading a congregation, running an abuse shelter, working on prison reform initiatives, teaching in an underfunded school, or any other vocation that can drag you down and leave you feeling that society does not have your back.  Identify a few of those people, call them up and say “I really appreciate the work you are doing, and I would like to be your friend. I promise I’m in this relationship for the longhaul. What can I do to ease your burden?” Who wouldn’t love to receive a call like that?

Sisters and brothers in Christ.  The core missiology of Friendly Planet Missiology really is that simple—and that tough.  Be a true and loyal friend to your neighbors. And if you want to know who your neighbor is, I defer to what Jesus had to say on that subject.
 
Inaugural ride of the Indiana Circuit Riders

Rev. Glen Robyne, FPM's new Cyclist in Residence for the Indiana Conference