Friday, November 22, 2013

Do We Worship God or America?

This weekend is the annual protest against the Western HemisphereInstitute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, located at Fort Benning, Georgia. This military institute has been known to train Latin American general in brutal tactics that have been used to silence the opposition in numerous ways. Some of the victims have been Catholic priests and nuns working alongside the poor.

Photo by Patrick Mulvaney of 2004 SOA Protest Funeral Procession
Read his recount here
The vigil is held the weekend before Thanksgiving annually to commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of 6 priests, theirhousekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on November 16, 1989, just eight people of the thousands killed by the graduates of SOA. About 15,000-20,000 people will attend this vigil. School groups, college groups, peace activists, Catholics, and Protestants from the US and Latin America comes to peacefully protest this institute. I went twice with fellow classmates from Earlham College. Every year the vigil ends in a giant funeral procession remembering all the people who have been killed by the graduates of the School of the Americas.

Yet, outside of a handful of Catholic and Protestant churches, will this protest get any attention this Sunday in our churches? How many churches will remember the victims of our military actions in their prayers of the people? Will there be any special services to commemorate this ongoing suffering tragedy?

I want to contrast this with what I saw earlier this month all over social media, in the news and with my own eyes. On the Sunday before Veterans Day, there were special services, invitations to military families, and prayers for our troops. Here is just one of many examples: Rick Warren's Saddleback Church had a special invitation to military families.
When will Saddleback Church make a special invitation to peacemakers and their families? Or any church for that matter?

When will churches give prayers for the victims of war in the Prayers of the People? When will we remember the deaths of our fellow Christians or even humans affected by our extremely large military? Even more, when will we recognize that we are all complicit with the military industrial complex that feed off a patriotic Christianity in the United States? This is one of our sins that we need to recognize!

I have seen pastors who are worried about saying anything to disrupt their congregants on Veterans Day weekend. If they didn't want to glorify war, most of them stay silent and did not mention their real beliefs. Veterans Day weekend in the Church should have been one of mourning. Yes, mourning that the War to End All Wars did not do accomplish that. Instead it continued a brutal and violent history. We should mourn how we so eagerly send off young people to fight to keep the Defense Industry wealthy, while we ignore veterans on the streets?

Sadly American Christianity is currently more interested in upholding American Exceptionalism rather than having a prophetic voice. When will we recognize that God does not just love us but the whole world? Until that point, American Christianity will continue to worship America more than God.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thesis Statement

People have been interested in hearing about my thesis. After a little research, here is a better statement describing of where I hope to go with this project. Thank you already for all the help!

I welcome feedback, tips, comments, suggestions, etc... you can email me at gregory.woods(at)


My Masters of Divinity Thesis, being written under the guidance of Professor Mikoski, will focus on re-imaging what short-term church mission trips could be. In this context, I am using short term mission trip to mean a trip primarily for teenagers and young adults going outside of their own community to do hands-on service projects in an economically-disadvantaged population for a short length of time, usually a weekend or a week, no more than two weeks. In its current iteration, these well-meaning trips have been problematic, often serving to reinforce stereotypes of poverty and minorities and establishing a helpee-helper relationship that creates an unhealthy power dynamic and fosters dependence.

 My main argument is that these mission trip experiences should be rooted in building interdependent relationships and by creating space for dialogue between groups of people that rarely interact in any meaningful way. Our society is so fragmented that even through we might live in the same geographical place as other people, we rarely engage with others from radically different backgrounds. These projects can serve as a way for us to answer the question that Jesus was asked, "But who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). Yet further these projects can challenge how to fulfill Jesus' second commandment of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39).

I will argue that a different model could be used. Short-term mission trips could be based on long-term reciprocal relationships that blur the lines between helper and helpee. These kind of relationships would allow for each other's gifts to be shared and appreciated. I will present case studies of existing reciprocal relationships and the best practices learned from these relationships. By presenting these case studies, I hope to further the academic research into these seldom-studied relationships, as well as provide examples for people wanting to start these kinds of relationships.

Throughout the thesis I will draw on my own experiences as a participant and leader of mission trips, recent scholarship and popular works on this topic, interviews with people around the world involved in all facets of mission trips, and the research undertaken last academic year in an independent study by Margaret Webb (PTS MDiv 2013) and me.

If you are curious about Margaret and my research from last year, check out this website we built.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Debate about Teach for America

Yesterday I read a critique of Teach for America on Slate by a former alumna and now Professor of Education. 

Today I posted that critique to Facebook. A friend, an employee of TFA, sent me a critique of the Slate article by another employee of TFA, Justin "Juice" Fong. These two articles are getting a lot of comments on my Facebook wall and I want to get in more of a dialogue. I have friends who have done TFA and love it and I have friends who despise it. Please keep it civil. 

Below is my critique of Fong's critique:

I have read other posts by Fong before, so I am aware of him and his writings about TFA. Overall I think it is a good critique, but it raises more questions for me.

I am glad TFA is trying to get people to stay past two years. Why not do something bold and make it a five year commitment? I know of a program like that in Chicago. I talk to Princeton students who will go do two years in US and then go to graduate school or law school. They specifically do TFA because it will look good on resumes when they want to apply. 

Also I would argue that ending up in an education nonprofit is not the same thing as staying in a classroom teaching. I think that is what the Slate author is implying that people aren't staying in the classroom. I would love to see that data from RI about how many stayed in the actual classroom. Is it half of 70%? Or 3/4th? What will it look like in 10 years? What is TFA's goal for retention? Fong himself 10 years later isn't in a classroom. So are disadvantaged students supposed to accept having a new teacher their whole school career, just because they go to a school with a lot of TFA staff and turnover because of it? 

Another critique that I have heard and the Slate author alluded to is that TFA is more interested in Ivy League and top private school students than public school students. What are the stats? Yes it is good that the corps are getting more diverse but where are they coming from? Lets talk about the differences in privilege of a Ivy League student compared to a public university student. Also how many are education  
majors? Seeing posters around my college back in 2007, I received the impression that they wanted everyone besides education majors?

When a school district is downsizes, does TFA downsizes its corps accordingly? Or are long term teachers losing their jobs to TFA members? What is TFA doing in Chicago, for example? (My friend at TFA responded that some Corps members did lose their jobs as well as alumni in both Chicago and Philadelphia.) Is TFA sending less corps members there because of that, so there is room for new teachers who have MATs who want to teach there?

What about the Slate author proposal of having TFA members be co-teachers with a veteran teacher or teaching assistants for the first year? Wouldn't that help members receive more training and students to have an incredible education experience.

I think it is sad for Fong to compare SAT scores of Education majors with college GPA of TFA members. Really that is not the same comparison at all. So no one can be a good teacher if they didn't do well on a test in high school? One of my teachers in high school didn't complete college until late in life (if she ever did), but damn she was one of my best teachers ever and had other teachers' respect. Over my life, committed teachers have help me more and they probably were not always the top of their college class. Yes it would help to have more smart teachers, but I would want teachers who are passionate for the job too and in it for the long haul.

What do you think? Hopefully Juice will answer some of my questions because I would like to hear his responses.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Need for Intimacy in Quaker Worship

I wrote this piece for The Canadian Friend Summer Youth Issue, which is being mailed to Friends across Canada and beyond this week. 

Do we know our fellow worshippers? Do we know the people with whom we are filling Christ's request for His presence in the Book of Matthew chapter 18? Christ says in 18:20, " For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them"

The Canadian Friend Summer Issue Cover
Often our monthly meetings do not function as a close caring group of Friends. I attended a large meeting for well over a year and one day during worship I looked around the room to count the names of people who were there. Even though I attended regularly and was active in organizing the Young Adult Friends, I was embarrassed that I only knew half of the names of the people gathered that day. After attending another Meeting regularly for six months, I was called by a member of the Outreach committee and was asked if I was still attending worship. Even though I have a more positive experience with this particular monthly meeting and had knew most of the community, I had never met the caller. Furthermore when I asked the clerk of the meeting if she could point out the person, she could not recall who this woman was.

Recently, I read an article in Friends Journal recommending that the Religious Society of Friends talk about having a testimony of intimacy. I agree with the need to talk about intimacy in our community, but this Friend referred only to sexual intimacy.

I utterly reject using intimacy to mean only romantic relationships. By relegating this word to just mean one kind of relationships, to mean just one of its definitions, we are losing a valuable aspect of our community. When worshipping together was considered a criminal act, early Quakers know what being intimate with each other meant. Then during our Society's isolationist period - in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - when Quakers lived in their own communities away from others, they knew each other and set up ways to monitor each other. This is why we have traveling minutes and marriage certificates. Both of these traditions were introduce partly as ways to watch over people to make sure that our collective faith stayed pure. Friends were definitely involved with each other in an intimate manner.

I am definitely not arguing that we go back to our isolationist period, but our spiritual ancestors definitely knew who they worship with every First Day. Do we? Can you name everyone in Meeting on Sunday? If so, do you know what their recent struggles and triumphs are?

Quakers do not believe in outward forms of sacraments. Rather, we believe in sharing the holy communion inwardly with each other. Through waiting worship should be offering each other the proverbial bread and wine. It is a communal experience. If it isn't, why do we gather each week? Why pay for the upkeep of our Meeting Houses? Instead we could just stay at home and mediate alone. Sharing God's body with fellow worshippers each Sunday is an intimate act. Do we treat each meeting for worship as a sacred time? Do we come to meeting for worship expecting to be changed through this weekly time for sharing inward sacraments with each other?

One of my favorite meeting for worships happened in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy that hit the eastern coast of the US last October. The Sunday after Sandy hit, the Meeting House was still without electricity. Yet we gathered on a rather cold morning. We huddled together around the fireplace for an hour of waiting worship. Our bodies were touching as well as our souls as we gathered in God's presence. That day, I felt a part of this worshipping community in a whole new way.

By the next Sunday, the electricity to the Meeting House was restored and we returned to our usual seating pattern spread throughout the room, with two or three on a pew, instead of a dozen. The only people who sat close together were couples and families. Months later I still miss the intimacy I felt that one cold Sunday morning as we huddle together simultaneously seeking the warmth of the fire and the Holy Spirit.

How can we reclaim intimacy within our faith community, before we just become strangers who gather together for personal time of mediation?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lets Stop Glorifying War in Church

This weekend, we are celebrating Memorial Day. In the last week, as I have passed churches on the road and seen their Facebook updates, I have seen a lot of messages that says something about honoring our heroes. Each time I read or see that, I cringe. It is further evidence of the combining Christianity and patriotism in this country. The Early Church gathered in secret to worship a Savior that was executed by the most powerful military at the time, but now we worship the most powerful country and its military strength along with Christ. There are a lot of dangers in this continued Idol worship.

The influential German theologian Karl Barth was perturbed as a young man when his clergy mentors and other prominent Germans signed the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three in 1914. This manifesto offered unequivocal support of the actions of the German military. This had a major effect on Barth's theology about the separation of the church and the government. When a professor talked about this pivotal moment in Barth's life and theology last semester during a class on Karl Barth, he did not even attempt to make the connection between Barth's crisis to the current dilemma that we face in this country. Tomorrow, thousands, perhaps millions of US Christians will walk into their churches and not be surprised to see the American flag near the altar.

I have been thinking about this dilemma for a while. Growing up, I attended anti-death penalty vigils outside of my state's Governor Mansion. In reading about the cases, I sometimes learned that the death row inmates have served in the armed forces at some point before their crime. Often I reflected on this double standard, we teach people how to kill people and then praise them, but then we will also put to death the same people if they kill other people. How does any of this fits in Christ's admonishment that we should love our neighbors?

Last May I took a short intensive class on Young Adult Ministries. As part of this class, we talked about ministries in university settings, prisons, and the military. To talk about military chaplainships, the class traveled down to Washington DC and talked to chaplains currently serving in different parts of the armed forces. Several of us asked most of the chaplains how they dealt with the command from Christ to love our neighbors. All but one chaplain did not answer this question. Usually they responded with that they are just following orders or altogether avoid the question. The one chaplain who actually answered the question said that it was a hard question and one that some soldiers had a hard time wrestling with.

As a Christian, when I am in church, my allegiance is only towards Christ. I do not believe that God only blesses the USA, instead I believe God loves the whole world. I do not buy into a philosophy that is the outgrowth of the Manifest Destiny that led to the unnecessary slaughter, slavery and death of millions of Native people. I do not buy into a philosophy that was used to justify slavery in this country and around the world. I believed that we are called to love our neighbors period.

By writing this, I do not want Christians to abandon our troops. We should dialogue about what it means to support our troops and how to support these men and women after they return home, changed forever. We should also hold up the people who go to the same regions to do purely humanitarian work, often unarmed and with less support, in an effort to bring about peace in other ways. But at the same time lets not glorify the world's richest military within our church doors. We already do that enough the other six days of week.

Instead, on this Memorial Day weekend and after, let's keep Church as a place to remember the human costs of the war (including all casualties of war) and our own implicitness in this industry that keeps us at war. Let's pray that God will keep giving us strength to work towards an eternal peace that will only exist when God's Kingdom come into being.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Not Letting Myself Be Defined By My Speech Or My Beard

Earlier today I went to a barbershop downtown and had my beard greatly trimmed and received a nice hair cut as well. Part of the reason I had to do this is that I am doing a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a nearby hospital. This basically means I will be the hospital chaplain's intern for the summer. When I interviewed back in the fall, the chaplain informed me that for health reasons that I would have to cut most of my beard off.

Ever since I was young, I have wanted a beard. I do not know exactly why, but I do remember wanting one as early as middle school. Then when I was 18 I grew my first beard and for a good portion of the last ten years I have had a beard in some form. At times, I have kept it trimmed in a way but for almost the last two years I have just let it grow with very minor trims. I mainly did out of curiosity to see how long it grew. But I did it unconsciously for another reason too.

In therapy, as I have written aboutbefore on my blog, I have been dealing with my self image. For most of my life, I have felt that my speech impediment has been my most defining characteristic. I thought the way I speak is how people remember me the most and it was usually the only quality most people would notice. But some friends told me that this was not case. Once I wrote an email to someone who had met a couple years before at a conference. She had not remember me, so I said that I had red hair and a speech impediment. She emailed back to let me know that she did remember me but she remember me for other qualities than my speech impediment.

I think this was the first time I realized that I should not let myself be defined by my speech impediment. But it is hard not to let it be, especially after a couple decades of telling myself that I am defined by my speech. To be honest, I have to deal with people not being able to understand me everyday and I have to deal with some of those people automatically assuming that I am mentally handicapped in a way most days.

Yet, with a long red beard, I would get noticed before I even opened my mouth. People everywhere complimented me on the beard. I stood out in another way than just having a speech impediment and a

ll the baggage that comes with that. With a long beard I felt defined in another way. It was like my security blanket. I thought maybe people will remember me as the guy with the really rad red beard, instead of the guy with the speech impediment. But, also I did get a lot of snickers and laughs coming at me because I had a ridiculously long red beard. Sometimes, like my speech impediment, I felt embarrassed by having this long beard.

As I thought about this dilemma in therapy, I realized that neither my long red beard or having a speech impediment completely define who I am. I have a lot of other characteristics, much more important aspects of myself. If I let myself be define by either of these two qualities, I am holding back my gifts that I can offer the wider world. Even though I will always be defined negatively by an handful of people (it can be a cruel world out there), I have to remember that I am a child of God and I need to live into that role more fully. In Matthew, Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount that, instead of hiding it under a bushel, everyone should let their light shine (Matt 5:15-16).

Yes, I do need to let my light shine brightly and not hold my gifts from the world.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Reflections from My Lenten Journey with Anger

The Lenten season has ended, but my journey with anger is just getting deeper. Over the Lenten season, I thought about: How deep my self-hate actually is; why I root for underdogs; and How I may unknowingly discriminate against others.

During the Lenten season, I began to really grapple with how deep my self-hate goes. I wrote about this in my first blog post, but at that time I did not know just how deep it is and how I have held a grudge against myself. Upon this realization, I thought that if I just started to love myself the self-hate would magically disappear...

Sadly, it does not work that way. By focusing on my self hate more during the Lenten season through therapy, writing, and mediation, I was able to explore how I have internalized people's opinions of myself since a young age. I have sought outside reinforcement of my worth because I do not have a high opinion of myself. I thought I would gain this through other means, but I never have. As I have discovered through the Lenten season, no outside reinforcement has been enough to build a sense of self-worth, it ultimately has to come from me and me alone.

For most of my life, I have been active in helping others and advocating for social justice. I always thought it had to do solely because of my Quaker upbringing. But during Lent, I reflected more on this. In late February the poet Shane Koyczan released a video of the slam poem "To This Day" and it made its rounds across the internet. Then in early March his TED talk was released as well. I have listened to the poem several times and his TED talk once. His words connected deeply to my experiences growing up feeling out of place and why I root for the underdog. If I believe that the underdogs would never win, I would never have a chance. I always thought if they could win, I could win. I am still working through this realization and how it has impacted my life and my outlook on life.

Thinking about this "underdog" mentality also reminded me of the movie, Simon Birch, which I saw years ago. At the end of the movie when the title character dies, everyone else reflects on what lessons they had received from him and his tragic circumstances. This is how people, usually children, with disabilities are portrayed in popular culture as being here solely so that other people can learn valuable lessons. Afterwards they are promptly discarded or ignored. They are not to be recognized as regular human beings with the same desires and feelings, instead they have a mythical presence. This might be because people with disabilities are largely ignored or avoided in the real world.

Society largely does not know what to do with adults living with disabilities. As kids, at least society will raise money and make movies about us. As adults, we are often left alone and the discrimination just gets worse. Another famous example is Helen Keller. Most people learn about her childhood and about her teacher, Anne Sullivan. But did you know that as an adult she graduated from college and became a socialist activist, fighting for human rights? We all like the story of Helen overcoming her disabilities to communicate, but we never hear the rest of the story of how she used her communication skills to advocate for others.

Shane’s poem also raised up the subtle ways my teachers and friends compounded my self-hate and discriminated against me with their use of words and their actions. Realizing how language and actions impacted me has made me wonder how I might discriminate against others with my words and acts. Now I am looking at what I say and how I act towards others. I have explored how I treat people and the words I use. In a recent sermon, I explored the concepts of Light and Darkness. This is just the beginning of that process in exploring ways I might have discriminated against other.

I did not write a lot during the forty days but I hope to continue to write and to develop something for children growing up with disabilities and their families and friends. I continue to welcome anyone who wants to dialogue on any of these topics. This journey will continue as my journey with God and Christ continues after the end of Lent.   

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Light and Darkness Become One

I preached this sermon this morning in my preaching class based on some thoughts that I have been mulling over in the last week about the use of the word, "Light" among Quakers.

This sermon is based on Jonah 1:17-2:10 (NRSV)

In the Quaker tradition, we use the metaphor of the Light a lot. Partly because early Quakers use this imagery often in their writing and also partly some Quakers are uncomfortable with using the word "God". Most of them tend to be spiritual refugees from other denominations, having grown up being told that God did not love them for one reason or another. Some tried to hide their true selves from God and others, feeling like if others knew the insides of their souls, they would be disowned forever by God and the church. Now to them Light seems safe to say because it is a new metaphor to them, something different, something without baggage.

But I have been reflecting on what I have been using for the opposite of Light for most of my life, which is usually darkness, to describe a lack of God, evil. I started rethinking using darkness to describe the opposite of Light last semester when I read a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In an address in 1967 Dr. King said, "In Roget's Thesaurus there are some 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, such words as blot, soot, grim, devil, and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity, and innocence." Ever since then, I have been wondering: Do I promote this negative duality through the way I talk about my spirituality? Light/White = good and Darkness/Black=bad.

To seek out guidance on how I should proceed with this question, I went to the wisest place I know of for answers. Facebook!

Several friends commented. A friend bought up the ideas of an UU theologian Jacqui James who writes that there are some good points about darkness, like it brings relief from the scorching heat. Also in darkness seeds begin to sprout and thus new life begins. Another friend brought up the story of Jonah being in the whale. Jonah had to go through the darkness within a fish to accept his call. As we heard from the passage, in the darkness, Jonah says a praise of thanksgiving to God, before the fish throws him up onto the land.

Before this praise of Thanksgiving, Jonah has tried his best to avoid accepting the call from God to go to Ninevah. As we hear in the praise, he had to be close to death before he realized the entire positives in his life and how much he believes in God. But we know from the passage that he was not actually near death because God sent the fish to shallow him before he drowned to the depths of the ocean. God protects him, even though he acts disobediently when God calls him. Jonah is not the only prophet he tries to hide from God. Oh no!

I bet some of us have stories of being disobedient towards God's calling to come to be here today listening to this story. Heck, you probably wanted to be disobedient and did not want to get out of bed this morning. I know I did.

For me the journey of coming to seminary took me to rural Missouri. I had heard the calling before I moved to rural Missouri from Washington DC, but I ignored the call. I was always too busy or too poor to go to seminary, or I thought. I kept saying no to seminary, thinking another opportunity, in the form of a job or anything else, was around the corner. But it took me asking God late at night alone what the next plans God had for me. It took doors closing before I said yes to God's calling. I thought I was spiraling downwards but now I know that God was leading me here by taking me to those dark cold nights in Missouri. Now I am thankful for those cold dark nights wondering where I would go next.

As future pastors and leaders of the church, we will be charged with helping people of all ages as they go through terrible parts of their lives. Some things we will see will be horrible. But sometimes we will see our parishioners struggle and they will actually be rebirths into Christ and deeper faithfulness. There will be times where we will go through difficult times in our own lives too. But the good news, just like Jonah in the fish, we are not alone. God will always be watching over us and this process.

Also I think this is where the church that we are inheriting is right now. Many people think the church is dying. All the signs are there. Attendance is down across the board in the mainline denominations. Churches are often in the red, only surviving off of endowments from past generations. There are more pastors looking for positions than open positions. Most of us are going to graduate without an assurance of a job.

But in the midst of this struggle, there is a hope, a seed, a thanksgiving to be seen. We are seeing the church changing. LGBTQ people are being accepted in as the children of God as they have always been. The church is becoming more than just a building that is open on Sunday to only some. There are so many examples of pastors and Christians taking new risks, trusting on God, doing and being in the Church in radical new ways because we cannot do any worse than we are right now. A couple weeks ago we listened to Dean Kay preach about his former church in Minnesota which changed themselves into a new kind of church with an active laity outreach to the community. We live in a time of great hope of pastor being bold. The church is being reborn and we are involved with this process.

Finally, this Sunday we will celebrate women finding an empty tomb and a command for them to tell the world about their find. In this dark cave, a place of death and sadness, God gave a people a message of hope that has lasted over 2,000 years, the resurrection of Christ and a proclamation of freedom to the captives. Light and darkness became whole together in that tomb with Christ's Resurrection. This act confirms God's devotion to all, despite what some people may try to say. By putting Jonah in a fish and by making a sealed cave empty, God shows that God does love all!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Unpredictability of March

A couple weeks ago, I attended the meeting for worship at Princeton Friends School, which the school calls "Settling In". Each week they meet for 30 minutes and a student offers a query. Since it was the first day of March, the assigned student asked "What are you looking forward to in March?"

Students talked about upcoming birthdays, looking forward to playing outside more, and summer coming closer. They were ready to shed their winter clothes and activities for sunny days spent outside. Eighth graders expected to hear back from high schools soon and they were nervous and eager to find out where they were accepted. These students were eager to take the next step in their education and life.

One of the teachers stood up and talked about how March could bring different weather. In March it is still normal for there to be a late snowstorm he said, but we also could expect sunny days to happen where short sleeves can be worn and bike riding could be done. The theme of his message was that March brought unpredictability, at a time when we wanted something concrete, ie the end of Winter and the start of Spring or the end of one stage of life and the becoming of another. We know that Spring is coming and we will hear about where we go on the next stage of our life, but March always brings surprises and bumps along the way.

In my experience this rang true. I used to go to New Orleans in March from Washington DC with a group of high school students for an alternative spring break trip. I remember often times bundling up to go to the airport in DC and then shedding all the layers once we landed in New Orleans. New Orleans was usually sunny with highs in the 70s and 80s that week in March. It gave us our first glimpse of Spring that helped us make it through the last few weeks of a DC winter/early Spring when we returned home. We were given a chance to see what was awaiting us once we waited out the dreadful last weeks of the winter season.

But that was not always true. Once I remember arriving to the airport in DC when it was in the 70s there. Instead of the group all wearing shorts and T-shirts in preparation for warm weather to follow us, we were carrying jackets and coats while wearing jeans. I actually expressed concern for two students who arrived with shorts on. "Did you come prepared? Did you look at the weather forecast?" Once we landed in New Orleans, it was a different than other years. It was cloudy with a high in the upper 40s. That night the temps dipped down to about freezing. We were cold that night sleeping in the not well insulated dorm room. It did warm up by the end of the week, but it seemed strange.

A week later after the Settling In worship, I was reminded of the teacher's words. A small snowstorm dumped a couple inches on Princeton, ruining any plans for bicycling or playing outside. It was beautiful and Princeton looked more like it was early January than early March. Jenn and I would have appreciated the snow more if we weren't in a hurry to make it to DC. We left that morning instead of the night before due to forecasts of snow. Yet, despite the weather forecasters' predictions, the snow came that morning.
The unpredictability of March caught us and we were not prepared or happy. We were worried that we were going to be late. Even though we knew it would clear up as we headed south, we were still worried in the moment. We knew that we needed to just keep driving until we were out of the storm

I feel like being a religious seeker is living perpetually in a state of March. Hopefully most of us have made it through the long journey towards God, the Light, the Holy Spirit. We know that we are almost there to the glory and unlocking the mystery, but we are not there just yet. Instead we will encounter a little more doubt and weariness and we will encounter quick fixes that promises happiness sooner than later. Sometimes I feel like that this time is harder than the journey I experienced at my lowest point in time. I am ready for the low point to be over. I am ready for God! That thought, much like looking forward to sunny days during a late winter snowstorm, keep me going in my faith.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Living Water is Available to All

I wrote this for my preaching class at Princeton Theological Seminary and I preached it this week. I wrote it with my classmates in mind, but it is a message for everyone to hear.

The scripture is John 4:1-26

When I was nine years old, I went to an annual family church camp that we went to every summer. One afternoon I was hanging out with some slightly older kids at the camp. The only reason I clearly remember my age is because the older kids wanted to go on a walk without me, so they told me that only people who were double digits in age could go on that particular walk. I was disappointed. I remember thinking, "But I will turn 10 in two months," as they went walking away and I was left out of a cool adventure: Going to the railroad tracks to throw rocks. I was outcasted because of something so trivial as my age, something I couldn't change about myself.

Often times I feel that is how the church feels to outcasts in our communities, even if we try to deny it. We say everyone is welcomed, but really is everyone welcomed at our churches? Would the town outcast be welcomed at your church like any other person? How would we end up acting if a woman, who reeks of cat odors, comes in for the 11 o'clock service? Would we give her the same time or attention that we give the matriarch of the family who comes to church each Sunday and sit in the fifth bench? Do we openly invite these people in and offer them grace?

In the scripture, we just heard, Jesus shows us what it means to really invite someone into the church. He offers grace and the Living water to a Samaritan woman. She is an outcast and we do not exactly know why she is an outcast. But she is at the well at a rather unusual time. We know that she has had many husbands, so that may be a reason. Maybe this town was her husbands' family town and the family despises her now that her husbands are gone. Let just say dealing with in-laws is not always easy, right? Whatever happened to her, it is clear that she is not part of the in-crowd in this small town. She has internalized this: Why would anyone want to have anything to do with me, much less a stranger hanging out by the well?

This Lenten season I have devoted myself to writing about my anger and with the source of this anger. Through therapy over the last year, I have found out that I have had a lot of anger towards God and Christianity. Growing up I was picked on by Christians and saw others being picked on by Christians. "Why did God let this happen?" I thought. Their actions didn't look like God's Love to me. I started to internalize the taunts and the mistreatment I faced. I thought that God hated me and gave me this impediment for some sort of misdeed I did in a past life. Why else would God give me a speech impairment? Why else would God do this to a kid? I remember crying at night when I was young and saying, "Why me? Why God?" just wanting a clear answer yet never receiving one. I felt like the Samaritan woman at the well. I felt outcasted.

In the last year, I have realized that, even through the painful times, God was/is always with me. I stand here today bringing the word of the Lord by God's grace alone. There were times, I thought about leaving the faith. During these dark times, I doubted myself and what I had to offer the world. There were times when I couldn't feel loved by anyone, but now I know that God and my family always loved me. They all loved me even when I was a difficult person to be around, in the midst of an angry rage. When I felt alone, the Living Water was still available to me. God did not give up on me because, like the woman at the well, I did not immediately understand what God was offering me through Jesus. God was still there when I decided to come back and accept what was being offered to me. Now I do not wonder why I am the way I am. I see my life as a gift, not a daily burden. I have stumbled along the path to God, but God has always been waiting to receive me.

Jesus shows us that the living water is available to all that seek, to all despite who they are, even if they are an outcast or feel outcasted. Before this scene in the Gospel of John, Jesus had only encountered other Jews and the disciples did not fully grasp how far Jesus' grace extended. After this scene with the woman at the well, the disciples are surprised, "What are you doing, Jesus, with that woman? We went to get some meat and now you are talking to an outcast?" Jesus was showing them and is showing us through His actions that Love, Grace, and the Living Water are available to all, not just a select group at a select time. It is available to people we meet in everyday life, whether it is in a church, at a well, on the street, or in the check-out line, even if they are the worst sinner. If they ask for forgiveness or the Living Water, it is always available to them. Even if they do not understand at first, what is being offered, it is still available to them. Jesus could have left the woman at the well after her first misunderstanding by saying, "I give up! Bye! That was your only chance." But Jesus does not give up, He remains there with the woman in her time of need and continues to offer a new path for her. God has offered us that same thing time and time again. Do we have that kind of patience for others?

That is the good news! The Living Water is always available to anyone who thirst, anyone, despite their pasts, despite our misdeeds. Although our churches can often function like a social clique, where only certain people are welcomed, we can change this. We can reform the church with our leadership saying that anyone and everyone is welcomed. We can choose to treat everyone like they are a child of God. Jesus shows us in the Gospel of John that the Living Water is open to all, who thirst, not just the privileged, or the morally righteous or even the people whose ages are in the double digits.

In our future lives we need to be asking ourselves: How can we spread this vital message in our ministries? How can we change our churches to better reflect Jesus' message at the well, that everyone is welcomed for a drink, no matter what. The church needs to make this change and we are the ones God have called to this path. If we allow ourselves to be God's implement, God will use us to continue offering the Living Water to everyone who wants it. Just as Jesus sends out the Samaritan woman to go tell all about what happened at the well, God is sending us out to tell all about God's love and forgiveness that is available to anyone.

Are we ready for this challenge?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Giving Up Anger for Lent

For Lent I am giving up my anger.

Not a lot of people know about my anger because I have tried to keep it hidden from most people, but my closest friends, family and housemates have seen my anger side. For years I thought my anger came out of my social justice work and seeing  the inequalities in the world.

After working with my therapist for more than a year, I finally realize that the anger comes out of a self-hate. This self-hate has developed over the years due to growing up with a speech impediment and feeling less than equal. I remember crying to my mom when I was young and asking, "Why did God do this to me? Why me?"

I have always known that my family and my faith community love me for who I am, but I spent most of my time out in the world where any slight differences were good enough reasons to be bullied, treated differently, or to be largely ignored. After years of this painful treatment and feeling less than whole, I internalized this hate and started to see myself as not being whole. I would wake up in the morning hating myself and thought that I had to do other things to make myself lovable. This has led me to undertake a lot of different kinds of work to prove that I am worthy of love and respect.

But in the last year, with the support of Jenn, my fiance, and my therapist, I have finally gotten to a point in my life when I recognize that I am a whole human being and that I am deserving of love and respect because of being a person and not because of what I do or do not do.

In this season of Lent, which I am doing in solidarity with my fellow Christians*, I will focus on writing more about my trauma and on loving myself more. I hope that my writing can lead to more personal healing. In the future I hope to produce materials to help youth living with disabilities and their families through the challenges of growing up in a world that is not always accepting of differences. Also, during this Lenten season, I hope to further internalize self-love to rid myself of the self-hate that has plagued my life.  

*Quakers historically do not celebrate holidays because we believe that every day is a holy day. In the last 100 years Quakers have started to celebrate holidays and more and more Quakers are observing Lent, but we do not have any special commeration for the Lenten season as a denomination.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lets Face It Quakers are Unique, and Other Denominations are too

I consider myself an ecumenical Quaker.


I am a lifelong Friend, who goes to a Presbyterian Seminary. Last summer, I interned at an United Methodist Church where I still am involved with the youth group during the school year. This school year I am working at the Episcopal Campus Ministry on the Rutgers University campus. I attend meeting for worship twice a week: On Tuesday nights at Canal Friends Worship Group and on Sunday mornings at Princeton Friends Meeting.

On an average week, I go to two meetings for worship, celebrate the Eucharist with college students, attend Chapel at the Seminary, and spend time with the youth at the United Methodist Church.

I made the decision to go to Princeton Theological Seminary because I wanted to see what the wider Christian world has to offer Quakers and I wanted to see if all denominations were just as dysfunctional as Quakers. I can happily report that the wider Christian world has lots to offer Quakers and yes, they can be just as dysfunctional as any monthly meeting. (Too bad sometimes I thought we took dysfunctional to a new level, but now I see that we have stiff competition.)

When I came here to learn more about the wider Christian world, I realized that people are interested in learning more about Quakers and what we have to offer other denominations. I have had several meal time conversations with fellow students. Several seminarians have attended Princeton Friends Meeting. A local hospitality house has asked me to come to talk about Quakers. My supervisor this year is interested in having me talk about silence at some point during Lent to the college students at Rutgers. Even at parties away from my seminary community, people want to know more about Quakers when they find out I am one.

We have a lot to offer the world, especially in the midst of daily chaos, 24 hour news cycle, smaller and smaller technological devices. How can we still hear the voice of God in the midst of all this noise and clutter? How can we be comfortable and even live into the silence?

Also the belief that anyone can be called to minister is still radical 350 years later. I have dear friends in the Catholic Church who are struggling for Women's Ordination. Also, I just met a woman, who was talking to her non-denomination church about being ordained. It has taken a year but she is finally making progress with her church and pastor to be the first woman ordained in her church. Being ordained will help her in finding a job as a hospital chaplain. Our pulpit is always open to anyone who feels led and our structures allow ways to nurture ministers and new ministries, if we choose to follow them.

We Quakers have a lot to learn from other traditions. We can learn about what it means to support young people with paid staff and offer opportunities for them. We can learn how to better support our elders as they age. We can learn that talking about our faith in public is not always bad. We can learn better techniques at letting people know we still exist and how to greet and welcome newcomers. Some monthly meetings do this well, but, based on my opinion, a lot do not. I have been particularly impressed by the United Methodist Lay Leader program.

Quakerism is an unique faith and we have a lot to offer our siblings in other denominations. We can also learn a lot from them too.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Some Quaker History

This semester I am trying to fit more Quaker history into my course work. I just picked up a book, Remember the Distance that Divides Us, edited by Marcia J. Heringa Mason, from Princeton University's Firestone Library for a project. The book is based on letters of a Philadelphia Quaker abolitionist and Michigan pioneer Elizabeth Margaret Chandler.

While flipping through the book, I saw a poem that Elizabeth wrote about Anthony Benezet, whose 300th birthday happens to be today. Anthony Benezet was a French-born American abolitionist, educator, and a Quaker.

So I figured I would share it here:

Anthony Benezet
by Elizabeth Chandler

Friend of the Afric! Friend of the oppress'd!
            Thou who wert cradled in a far-off clime,
Where bigotry and tyranny unbless'd,
            With gory hand defaced the page of time;
Wert thou forth driven by their stern control,
             An infant fugitive across the deep,
To teach, in after years, thy pitying soul
            O'er all the Afric's causeless wrongs to weep
Where slavery's bitter tears the flag of freedom steep?

And thou didst nobly plead for them; thy heart.
           Thrilling to all the holy sympathies,
Of natural brotherhood, wept, to see the mart
           Of commerce, with its human merchandize,
So crowded and polluted, and thy voice,
           With the clear trumpet tones of God's own word,
Rang through the guilty crowd, until no choice
           Was left them but to tremble as they heard,
Or bind with treble seal the feelings thou hadst stirr'd.

The ears of princes heard thee; and the wise,
           Touch'd by the mastery of thy earnestness,
Bade their train'd spirits for a while to rise
           From their profound research, and learn to bless
Thy generous efforts, and with kindred zeal,
           Led on by thee in duty's path to move;
And kindled by thy sacred ardour, feel,
           Like thee, that overflowing gush of love,
That lifts man's selfish heart all narrow thoughts above.

The fetters of the slave are still unbroken;
           But there will come, perchance, ere long, a day,
When by their lips who wrong'd him, shall be spoken
           The fiat of his freedom;--and the ray
Of intellectual light shall radiance pour
            On minds o'er which the gloom of darkness hung
In treble folds impervious before,
            By tyrants' hands around them rudely flung,
To bind the chains that to both limb and spirit clung.

Then shall their children learn to speak thy name,
             With the full heart of gratitude, and know
What thou hast done for them; and while they frame
That history for their infants' ears, may grow
             Perchance, in their own hearts, the likeness strong
Of they bright virtues; so thou still shalt be,
Even in thy sepulchre, their friend;--and long
              Shall those who love mankind, remember thee,
Thou noble friend of those who pined in slavery.

Happy Birthday Anthony Benezet!