I Say There is Hope

My Column for The Elgin Review, Elgin, Ne May 8, 2019

A member of a congregation I once served reached out to me. “If you get a minute, I could use some guidance. In a discussion with my sisters this weekend, all of them said the current political environment continues to push them further from church. They believe they see both Democrats and Republicans using Christianity to tear others apart. And if that’s true, then the church is complicit and is an underlying cause. They feel attending church is now more like belonging to a club, instead of a foundation. This breaks my heart. I know they aren’t alone in this thinking, and I have no idea how to respond. Do you have any thoughts to share? Is there any hope?”

How would you respond?  Are you with my friend? Do you see church as a foundation upon which to build your life? Or, are you more inclined toward her sisters’ view?

In my experience, and in reading church history and the news, church is as it has been throughout millennia, a mix, a collection of human beings joined together for a myriad of reasons, some holy and some wholly unholy. Political parties use Christianity to tear people apart, to sow seeds of dissension and to establish who’s in and who’s out. In far too many cases, Christians bow to the idols of power, influence and wealth and are complicit in the divisiveness of our day.

I’ve had moments when I’ve thought I would just walk away. “Please, don’t associate me with those kinds of Christians.”

I am, however, compelled by a vision of love cast by Jesus who healed and helped and welcomed and lifted up every kind of person toward wholeness and fuller lives. I am compelled by Jesus who empowered all his followers to go and do as he did. In the earliest days the church grew by leaps and bounds because people saw the ways Christians loved others.

I am compelled to cast my lot with the motley crew of the church because I saw a little boy named Calvin, snot nosed, dirty red face streaked by tears, embraced in a big hug by a man who’d never had kids when Calvin burst into a church meeting one evening, “My Daddy’s left and says he’s never coming back. What am I going to do?” Calvin’s dad never came back, but that congregation surrounded Calvin with so much love and so much support that he found his way.

I cast my lot with the church because there is a little congregation in the middle of corn fields where three pajama clad kids wandered in one Sunday morning and asked if anyone had anything to eat. Mom and Dad were still asleep (after a night of partying) and there wasn’t any food in the house. Ever since, the church serves Sunday breakfast to anyone, and now serves breakfast every school day, too, for the kids who wait for the school bus on the corner across the street.

The DNA of the Christian faith is caring for all our neighbors. Out of that DNA has sprung most of the hospitals around the world, most of the orphanages, most of the colleges, universities, and the public school movement, too, the Civil Rights movement here and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. From the church Habitat for Humanity was born, and Alcoholics Anonymous, too.

It seems to me that attending church is something fairly easy to opt in or out of when culture and politics make us all cranky, but being church is more challenging and far more compelling.

I say there is hope.

You are always welcome at Park Congregational United Church of Christ.


It was one of those calls that comes out of the blue. A local therapist introduced herself and explained, “One of your church members, Connie Smith* has been seeing me for some time now. She asked me to call you. Would you be willing to join us for one of her therapy sessions in the near future?” When I asked what it was about, she said, “Let’s just wait until you are here to talk about that.”

The call left me curious and anxious because Connie came to the church at the invitation of a couple who had recently left the church in a huff without being honest about why they were leaving. They managed to sow seeds of dissention as they went. What kind of ugly bomb was about to be dropped at my feet? How was I about to be blamed this time for something out of my control? (I was suffering from PTCSD- post-traumatic-church-syndrome from ugliness at my prior congregation).

I’ll come back to Connie’s story but for now, I’ll let you stew momentarily, as I did, wondering (and worrying) what in the world Connie needed her minister to visit about with her therapist.

The Godsquad, the church youth group I spent my favorite hours of every week of every year I was in Junior and Senior High with, used to belt out these words from scripture with far greater enthusiasm than musicality:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and anyone who loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He who loveth not, (clap, clap, clap) knoweth not God for God is love. Beloved, let us love one another first John four seven and eight…” Repeat ad nauseum ad infinitum.

When I left the Godsquad for college, though I was raised in a mainline congregation, I was what anyone would describe as a religious conservative. Heavily influenced by my Grandma Zahller, who, due to Multiple Sclerosis lived in an apartment in our basement, my deep faith, nurtured and nourished at church, included a lot of Grandma’s legalism.

Over time, with serious study of the Bible, nurturing relationships with professors and classmates and eventually colleagues; with travel, the accumulation of life experiences, and ongoing reflection and introspection my mind was changed on many things.  God kept working at prying my heart open wider and wider to see God’s love revealed in folks I previously would have considered outside of God’s grace.

In the midst of the conflict and ugliness in the congregation I served before serving Connie’s congregation, I was overtaken by the question, “What would happen if a church decided to make loving one another and all the ‘others’ beyond it, its highest aim? What would happen if I, as a pastor, made love my mantra?”

When I interviewed with the congregation where Connie became a member, I was exhausted and dispirited from the dysfunction and conflict in my current congregation coupled with my own heartbreak swirling around my recent divorce. Connie’s congregation too, had been through a heartbreaking season of divisiveness. The search committee interviewing me for the job asked, “What about gay people? What about gay marriage? Would you perform one?”

I told the story about my own journey to a broader and more inclusive faith. I told the story of my respected colleague and friend whose faith was palpable and whose pastoral skills and love for God were contagious. I shared how that colleague coming out to me was the beginning of my transformation. I told them about reading Mel White’s memoir, Stranger at the Gate (Penguin Publishing Group, 1995), and how it helped me sort through the Biblical and theological baggage I had carried with me over the years.  I told them I had never officiated a gay marriage or commitment ceremony, but was ready and happily willing to do so. I also told them, “I understand this is still a controversial issue and this congregation has just been through hell. I understand you simply want and need some time to heal. I also understand that God’s love extends to all God’s children and it’s not our place to erect barriers to anyone who wants to share that love of God in full fellowship with us. So here’s what I’ll tell you, I will pray that God does not bring to this congregation anyone whom we are not yet ready to welcome with arms wide open in the inexhaustible love of God. I’ll pray that I will not be asked to officiate any marriage here until this congregation can fully share the couple’s joy.”

I was called to be the church’s pastor. Time passed, conversations among the elders and others, Bible studies etc. took place and when Peg and Nora came to worship on the recommendation of a minister in the town from which they recently moved, our congregation welcomed them with arms wide open. It wasn’t long before both held positions of leadership and service. They loved God and God’s people. That they were in love with each other was never an issue, in fact, their love increased our congregation’s love, because love is like that—it multiplies and expands. Love is love is love.

Later on, talking with a friend about how over time my mind had been changed and God had extended my understanding of the breadth and inclusivity of God’s love, I admitted I still struggled with the whole idea of people being transgender. “I just don’t get it.” I said. “I have a hard time seeing it as somehow, ‘normal.’” I told her I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I  knew I needed more understanding so when the time came to be welcoming and loving like God is welcoming and loving I’d be completely ready. I told her a classmate’s handsome husband had transitioned a few years earlier and I had been “weirded-out” by it. My friend said she’d loan a book to me. Jennifer Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders (Broadway/Doubleday/RandomHouse) did for me part of what Mel White’s story did when I was working on coming to a better understanding of homosexuality.

Boylan’s book was on the back seat of my car when I pulled into the parking lot at Connie’s therapist’s office. I’d been driving around with it on my back seat for three or four weeks because I kept forgetting to return it after I finished reading it.

“Connie has something she wants you to know about her but she’s afraid to tell you because when she has told other pastors in other churches she has been ostracized and not allowed to remain in the church.”  I turned to Connie, thinking, pedophile? Murderer? Former felon? I said, “Connie, I don’t know what you’re about to tell me, but I promise you, whatever you tell me will not limit God’s love for you, nor will it limit your welcome in our congregation.” Connie, looking very nervous asked her therapist to tell me.

“Connie is transgender.”

So, maybe you saw this coming. I absolutely, sure as shootin’ at the time did not.

“I will pray that God does not bring to this congregation anyone whom we are not yet ready to welcome with arms wide open in the love of God.” Isn’t that just like God to take such good care of Connie that God prepared me just in time to be able to say, without hesitation, “Oh! Connie, God loves you so much.  You are loved and you are welcome. You are part of our congregation. You are God’s beloved daughter and I am glad to be your pastor.”

What would happen if we were to expend our Christian energy loving others extravagantly like God loves? What would happen if we quit squandering our Christian energy and tarnishing Jesus’ good name by narrowly drawing lines and boxes around who’s in and who’s out of God’s grace? What would happen in this weary, broken and fragmented world if we just let go and let God’s love fill us and flow through us, like it flowed through Jesus who opened his heart, his life, his arms wide for all of us?

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is love is love is of God.




*I change names and some details to protect confidentiality.

Still Speaking

Mrs. Clark opened her door after I knocked. “I was baking bread this morning and thought of you. Here’s a loaf. I hope you like it.”  She took in a deep breath, bowed her head and crumpled forward like a flower drooping. Bringing her clasped hands up to her chest a second passed before she breathed again and straightened to meet my gaze. “You remembered.” She said. “You remembered. It’s been a year today since my Walter died.” We visited a little bit there on her cozy front porch before I headed back down the street two houses to my own house where one of my babies was napping and the other two needed to be picked up from nursery school.

I didn’t remember it was the anniversary of her Walter’s death but I let Helen think whatever she wanted to think. But here’s what happened:

I’d been at the church the night before. There was a meeting and as was fairly common for that congregation someone acted ugly about something. Some congregations are truly skilled at arguing about things about which Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God Almighty and all the angels don’t give a rat’s patootie. This congregation got a lot of things right, but boy–howdy some of them sure could act ugly. And sometimes they directed that ugliness at us, their co-pastors. Even when it wasn’t aimed directly at us, some of it usually splattered in our direction.

When I climbed into bed I congratulated myself for not being worked-up about the ugliness. My skin must be getting thicker, I thought. I’ve been doing ministry long enough I’ve learned to let things just roll off my back. I thought. Hmm. I thought, a little over ten years into this and I’m getting the knack of it.

At two a.m. I woke up because someone was sobbing. It took me a moment to realize the person sobbing was me. With a sleeping husband beside me and three sleeping little boys across the hall I stifled myself quickly. And then as I was just waking up to my heart-wrenching doubts that so frequently follow on the heels of church members complaining–I’m not cut out to be a minister, this has all been some big mistake–I heard, in my head, but plain as day, an instruction, “Go downstairs and read.”

For years and years a thin little volume called, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983.) has been my frequent companion, spiritual guide and source of strength. The morning of the church meeting I skipped my prayer time. The boys were little, life was demanding and I just skipped praying (it happens!) In our family room at 2:00 am I turned to the words I missed in the morning, the words I was told to go downstairs to read. The Psalm was about God not abandoning us in a pit. And one of the readings for reflection was from St. Teresa of Avila (Way of Perfection). Part of it read,

Sometimes, too, God allows his servants to have stormy days…although they are distressed and seek to calm themselves, they are unable to do so…Let them not tire themselves seeking to infuse sense into an understanding which is, at the moment incapable of it. But let them pray as well as they can and even not pray at all, but consider the soul to be sick and give it some rest, busying themselves in some other act of virtue.

Wow! I read the words again and again. They sure seemed to be written just for me, just for right then.

I spent the rest of that sleepless night writing a letter to one of our youth group kids who was going through a rough time and making some bad choices in the process and then baking bread so there was a fresh loaf for my family to wake up to and another to share.

By mid-morning I was wondering if I was maybe a little crazy for thinking God had time or inclination to call me downstairs in the night.  But then I took the loaf of bread to Helen Clark for no real reason other than she was the first person who came to mind when I thought about what to do with it.

I bowed my head on my way home from her house. I don’t know how, I don’t understand God’s mysterious ways, but it sure seemed to me, I’d just been used.

I’d just been used by God to carry comfort in the form of freshly baked bread to a woman who needed comforting, and in the process God lifted me from my own little pit of church drama and self-doubt to comfort me, too.

I don’t usually hear instructions in the night. But if God spoke to Joseph and Samuel and others of his servants in dreams and in that still small voice long ago, based on that one night when my children were young and I was, too, I have to believe, as our United Church of Christ brothers and sisters affirm, God is still speaking today. It’s up to us to be sure we listen.