Tag Archives: worship

Reflections on #NCCPilgrimage16

This week, my 13-year-old, Mary, shares her thoughts and reflections on this year’s Pilgrimage, a weekend-long worship extravaganza for United Methodist youths. 

I had been looking forward to Pilgrimage 2016 since last year, when I went to Pilgrimage 2015.  The youth conference was only for United Methodist youth and was located in Fayetteville, North Carolina at Crown Coliseum.  The youth could bring friends, which almost all the youth in my small church youth group did happily last year.  We arrived in high spirits and had a joyous time singing and worshipping together with 5,000+ United Methodist youth from all over North Carolina in one place, youth of different colors, languages, and pasts.  I learned that we all made “Pilgrimage clothespins,” which were plain, wooden clothespins with inspirational messages on the sides.  We would then clip them onto the clothing of other people and merge into the crowd, knowing later they would read it and it would make them smile.  Getting clipped was an amazing thing, reading at night encouraging and uplifting messages of hope, love, and God.

This year, I began to count down the days until Pilgrimage 2016.  I was excited, as was my entire youth group.  This year, we didn’t bring friends and instead of a hotel we stayed in a camp.  We were looking forward to arriving at the coliseum for a life-changing experience, as we had last year.  I spent half the summer making Pilgrimage clips, painting them in bright colors and putting brilliant life quotes and Bible verses on the sides.  My buddy and I passed out a few of our clips Friday night, feeling grand knowing we made people smile.

Saturday morning, again, my buddy and I passed out clips, giving away my remaining twelve.  We sat down, ready for the hope of an amazing second session of Pilgrimage.  Instead, we were told that if we had a Pilgrimage clip on our being we would be immediately sent home.  The speaker of this year’s Pilgrimage sessions dished out hate at the clips.  Everyone was told to throw away their clips at the trashcans near the entrances; whether or not everyone did and instead risked their time pocketing the clips, I don’t know.

That evening, when we arrived at the coliseum, the cheerful atmosphere was missing from the entire building.  Everyone was more subdued than normal, not much chattering was going on, everyone in almost a thoughtful silence.  Passing out those clips was tradition, and in fact, taking that away angered many adults.  The knowledge of not being able to do that anymore took out half the joy in Pilgrimage, because with those clips, you knew you’d make someone smile.  We all took our seats half an hour before the third session started.  Once it had begun, one of the Pilgrimage coordinators went onstage and explained why we couldn’t have the clothespins.  A few Hispanic, Latino, and Asian youth groups had gotten bullying pins that said, “I love Trump!” on one side and “Build that wall!” on the other.  One of the chaperones from a Hispanic youth group – Stacy – got up and took the stage.

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The beginning of Stacy’s speech was good, explaining how she felt unwanted because of harassing clips her youth group had received and stares that greeted her the day before.  She made mention of how she’d grown up being bullied and understanding how it felt to be an outsider.  In school, she had to teach herself English, because her family didn’t know the language.  During recess, when everyone was playing dodgeball, people would say, “Get out that Mexican girl!  Get her out so she could return to where she came from!”

She explained how hurt she felt as she walked into the coliseum when people were looking at them as if to say, What are you doing here?  You don’t belong here.  However, then she started to make comments, such as how “the message of the red hat and the message of the wall is not the message of the gospel.”  A few youth that greeted her were wearing red Make America Great Again hats, which she found offensive.  “The message of the red hat was not a message of inclusion and welcome; it was a message of disinclusion (sic) and discrimination.”  More of the speech told us that the hat represented a person whose message was unwelcome and discriminatory toward women, Latino, African American, and Hispanic people as well as others.  “And this is not the message of the gospel,” Stacy told the many thousand youth listening.  “So today, we wanted to tell you, if you really believe that the Holy Spirit is here, if you really want to welcome the Holy Spirit, then take off your red hats.”

Being a true American citizen, she had a right to say that.  The freedom of speech is still true, no matter where you are.  But many of us believe that she was speaking to the wrong people.  Here we were, in a place supposed to be a destination to learn more about God and worship together, only the chaperones able to vote, getting politics in our faces.  It seemed as if all us Caucasians were labeled as Trump supporters and racists, even though there were only a few people at fault.  We were labeled as haters towards anyone who is darker colored, and I know that that is not the truth about most of the youth present that night.

See, as Christians, we are supposed to be loving towards everyone, not just people with the same skin tone as us.  Stacy judged us in her own stereotypes, taking the little she knew from the few minutes they stayed the first night and running and accusing all of us of being like that, when I know that loads of youth groups there would’ve welcomed her in.  She tried to blame us all for something only a few people did.  You don’t know the past of the youth who wore those hats.  No one in our youth group saw them.  They might have been using them as warmth, given that inside the coliseum was still really cold.  They might not have had much money, so since it was cold around the coliseum and outside, that one hat may have been the only one in their family.  We never know what the inside story about people are until we get to know them, but we often don’t take time to and instead make snap decisions.  Stacy was willing to tell us about her back story, but she didn’t take time to know the stories of others.  We as people have our own opinions, and if we want to wear a hat with our opinions on it, why should we be stopped?  What Stacy did was right in the respect that she did have freedom of speech, but wrong in many respects.

1) Wrong place, wrong time.  She should not have thrown politics into the matter.  She started off strong, but she quickly fell.

2) How many of us youth could vote?  That’s right, next to none.  Again, she shouldn’t have put in politics.

3) She didn’t respect the fact that we all have our own opinions.  Instead, she made a bigger issue out of it all.

4) She labeled us all incorrectly instead of just the people with the hats.  She labeled us all as haters and Trump supporters, not Christian people who would welcome everyone gladly.

I was grateful when our livid youth leader said that we were leaving after the speech was over.  We decided that since the Pilgrimage pins were taken from us, we would make up some and return to church the next day where we knew we’d be accepted lovingly so we could clip these pins on people.  We were up bright and early Sunday morning to get on the road, and we had fun clipping others.  I have made up my mind that every time I visit that church, I’m going to clip a handful of people.  I can also do it at general places such as grocery stores, restaurants, and gatherings.  I can spread love easily through a simple clip.

On a closing note, I believe that our image of what the weekend was going to be was different from God’s plan.  I was really grateful that we returned to church early, because we made many people smile with the joy we shared and the enthusiasm we brought with us at the sheer idea of returning.  Our pastor was absolutely livid, something I’ve never seen before in my life, and she explained that what happened should not have and that there was no place for it in a church setting.  Everyone went out of their way to show us some extra love after the horrible time we’d just had.  We all learned things from that experience, but the most important of them all was just how it feels to be labeled as one thing when only a few people were the cause.  Such as how Hispanic people are all being labeled as illegal, lazy, and/or drug dealers, when I know many who are perfectly legal, have great jobs, and hate the idea of drugs.  We think that Muslims are in support of ISIS, and that Blacks are associated with gangs and ‘hoods.  But really, it’s not true.  There are White gangs as well, and yet we never want to look at them.  What we don’t want to realize is that there are actually only a few immigrants who are illegal, and yet we want to say that every one of them is here illegally and subject to deportation.

 

Ministry Vision

It was 4:30 on a Sunday morning in May 2005.  I was snuggly in bed when I woke up suddenly.  There wasn’t anything that struck me as having woken me up – there was no cat on the bed and the room was silent.  Then the vision came.

All throughout Divinity school, I’d concentrated on ministering to those connected to the military but who may not come under the care of the base chaplain.  For a brief period, I’d even entertained the thought of enlisting in the military as a chaplain, but becoming a mom redirected my thinking there.  Anyway, those who are connected with the military but who the base chaplains don’t serve include boyfriends/girlfriends, friends, and parents.  As I explored this ministry farther, I learned from a chaplain at Camp Lejeune that there was often a three-day wait for personnel to be seen by a chaplain, and in the military, nothing is exactly confidential.  So, by establishing a ministry that would include troops as well, I could provide a truly confidential place for them to get help (with the exceptions covered by standard health and medical care codes of ethics).

So here I was in the dark hours of a Sunday morning, two weeks after having received my degree.  And it happened.  I don’t usually get visions (this was the first), and in fact I’d always thought that they happened to someone else, never to me.  This made me sit up (figuratively – remember, snuggly in bed?) and take notice.

God expanded the original vision to me.  Not only would I be ministering with those connected to the military and personnel and their dependents, but I would be ministering in the community at large.  It looked something like this:

There are so many people who are unchurched or who may not be comfortable going to their pastor about an issue they have, likely out of fear of judgment or lack of trust.  There are counselors, of course, but there still remains the stigma of, if you’re going to a therapist, you must be crazy.  So, they need spiritual care but aren’t sure where to find it.  My ministry would fit that need.  [Before the vision, we had experienced a pastor completely ignoring a crisis we were in at that time in our lives and following his own agenda.  Since this vision, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of a pastor revealing something shared in confidence – closed door, “this is just like CPE*” (his words) – with about 20-30 other people.  Yikes!!!] So, it’s easy to see how important trust is in the pastor/parishioner relationship.

The Crystal Coast area sees a swelling of population each year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with slight tapers on each end of that into the spring and late summer/early fall before dwindling down to just locals through the grey winter months.  Campgrounds, hotels, condominium towers, villas and a resort or two dot the landscape from Beaufort to Swansboro.  Crap happens on even the best vacation (forget Shark Week; we’ve had Shark Month!), and crises happen.  They can happen to people of any faith, not just bi-traditional Christians.  Another element of this ministry will be providing crisis care to those folks, supported by a network of clergy from other faiths and traditions who can step in if their particular flavor of care is needed.  This could also include those who wish to be married on their vacation.

Worship is a huge part of life for many people, but come Sunday morning when they’re staring at that check-out deadline, it seems wrong to sacrifice another hour or two in the sun for  church when the grind awaits their return when they get home.  I know I don’t make any effort to go to church when I’m vacationing at the beach, though I do miss the experience of communal worship.  A fourth aspect of this ministry would be brief worship services on the beach, come as you are.  We’re talking 20 minutes-brief, because we don’t want to be annoying, and if all you’re wearing is 3 triangles of material connected by strings or something brief by Speedo that shows off your hairy chest and your love of fried chicken, that’s okay.  We’re more about what’s inside than outside.

God gave me a name for this ministry – Crystal Coast Ministries.  And a logo even.  And a partner who may, unfortunately, be ready to retire by the time this all comes to fruition but who willingly embraced the vision and commented how much his wife and he love the area.

I was awed and humbled by this vision.  It nestled in my heart where it stayed through breakfast and dressing for church and getting my daughter ready for church.  After church, lunch, and getting a certain sweet little girl down for nap, I shared the vision with my husband.  He was (and still is) completely on board with it.  He suggested Christian deep sea fishing trips.  Maybe we could borrow a boat and get Marine Biology students from UNCW, Duke, or UNC to help serve as mates.  We’d be available to talk to them about whatever, simply sharing God’s love with them.

As I pondered this originally, I wanted our choir from Yates, our Durham church, to come down occasionally and help lead worship.  I’d still love that.  They’re a tremendous group of singers and worship leaders under the direction and guidance of a fabulous music minister, and they would certainly bless everyone who heard them.

A part of me could think it’s amazing that the vision is still so clear ten years, a move, and another child later.  But really, it’s not amazing at all.  God gave me this vision, and it has lain dormant in my spirit, heart, and mind for all this time, just waiting to be reawakened.  The time has come and is coming.  There are steps I must take in order to prepare myself, and that process has already begun.  I am excited but also a little scared, and I think those two emotions are perfectly appropriate.  We should all get excited about ministry, but we should also feel a little bit scared, because that will keep us on our toes and prevent us from getting cocky behind the stole.

*CPE is Clinical Pastoral Education, which is training for chaplains and those who will provide pastoral care to people. The first rule for the training group is keeping confidentiality.

I’m Out

What does that mean?  In gambling, it means, “I’m out of this hand or the game.”  In family life, it could mean, “I’m out of the house running errands.”  In the LGBT community, it refers to being “out of the closet,” being open about one’s sexuality and lifestyle.  I’m not saying any of those things.  I’m saying, I’m out of the box.  I’m outside the box.  I’ve known this for a while; it certainly wasn’t a secret to Dean Cogdill, my Divinity School dean.  To this day, I’m still not sure what he saw in me that had him labeling me his “outside the box thinker.”  I really had never thought my cognitive processes were all that different from other people’s.

It was fall semester, 2004, and I was in my last semester of Divinity school.  The last semester is rather anxiety-provoking, because every student in their last semester has to complete a Senior Synthesis paper, a lengthy (save often!) discourse on his or her entire Divinity school experience – every discovery, every growing edge, every field experience, every mission trip…  Everything!  To accompany this epic tome comes the Senior Panel.  This is a closed-door meeting with two professors and that semester’s Senior Synthesis professor, and each student gets to have a say in his or her choice of professors.  I put my choices in – Drs. Jones and Harmon, my professors of Hebrew and Old Testament, and Theology and Ethics, respectfully.  Soon before the panels were scheduled to begin, the list of panels came out and was passed around the room.

It didn’t take long for the mutterings to start.  “Whoa, Sara!  What did you do?”  “Oh, Sara, you’re gonna get it!”  Oh lordy, I thought, waiting for the list to get around to me, how bad is it?  Finally, the list came to me, and scanning down to my name I discovered that I didn’t get either of my choices on my panel.  Instead, I got both deans.  BOTH.  DEANS!  My professor said, “No one else got both Dr. Cogdill and Dr. Powers.”  “Yea.  Lucky me,” I replied.  Truthfully, I was terrified and humbled and honored, all at the same time.

There was history there.  As a Religion minor in the days before the Div school was chartered, Dr. Cogdill was chairman of that department, and, of course, I’d had some classes with him.  I’d had Dr. Powers for one undergraduate class.  In a lively discussion on the role of women in the home one day in Church and Family, Dr. Cogdill had had to get on me about my comportment during class discussions (I guess heavily insinuating that the guy I was addressing was misogynistic wasn’t very mature of me), an incident that, thankfully, he’d forgotten by the time I had applied for Divinity school.

As I sat in the conference room on the day of my panel, I remember the warmth and encouragement flowing from Dr. Hoyle, Dr. Powers, and Dr. Cogdill.  The last question Dr. Cogdill asked me was, “Sara, how will you stay outside the box?”  Um…  Uh…  Duh…  Crickets.  I was outside the box?  Really?  OK, that’s pretty cool, but it’s not something I’d ever done intentionally.  I was still young enough that some parental/family/social approval was a big deal to me.

That was ten-and-a-half years ago, and I am so completely out of the box now with age and maturity that I often forget there is a box filled with so many people.  See, here on the outside, it’s really spacious – not very crowded at all.  It’s great, but getting here can be quite scary.  Sometimes staying here is quite scary.  So how am I staying outside the box?

My heart still yearns to fulfill my ministry calling from so long ago.  As I have encountered more and more people, it has become glaringly apparent to me that we need more love and less judgment in this world.  People don’t need to hear a laundry list of their wrongdoings while we’re thumping our Bibles at them.  They need to hear just a few simple truths:  God loves you.  Jesus has something amazing in store for your life.  I love you.  Focus on that, so sweet, so simple, and the rest will fall into place perfectly.

English: Love Heart rainbow

English: Love Heart rainbow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before the Supreme Court determined that equality for gays and lesbians who wish to marry would be protected under the 14th Amendment, I began to think, Why shouldn’t they marry if they wish?  I mean, so many of them, without marriage, are living together in long-term, committed, monogamous relationships, and isn’t that pretty much what marriage is?  I lose nothing by them having the same civil rights that I do.  It’s not going to negatively impact my faith, my marriage, or my family life.  It simply means that gay and lesbian couples can now be legally happy together instead of illegally (for lack of a better word) happy together.  So…  Since they also have been created in the image of God, just as I have, and since God loves them, just as He does me, shouldn’t they also be welcomed into worship with us and welcomed to join us at the communion table?

Then my thoughts spread to another group, one that a friend of mine is in:  The BDSM group.  In speaking to my friend, he conveyed that “people like [them]” aren’t welcomed into churches, that churches tend to take a hard stand against them coming in.  Yet, this guy misses communal worship.  Years of being married to a Presbyterian minister accustomed him to the liturgy of worship and the inclusion into the family of faith.  If he misses church, would not others in the BDSM community miss it, too?  So why not establish a church where those other churches shun are welcomed?  Maybe being gay or enjoying some consensual kink is a sin; I don’t think so, but then again, I’m not God, and I’m not ever going to presume to put words in the mouth of the Almighty.  What I do know is, the Kingdom of God is for all of these people, just as much as it’s for the straight-laced, buttoned-down, very conservative people who sat on the pews this morning for worship.  I know that God loves them, and I am also called to love them.  And if the people following these lifestyles are sinning, it is not my job to judge them; the Holy Spirit can condemn them and lead them to repentance if that’s the case.  See, at the very least, these folks would hear the gospel message of sacrificial love and sacrificial living; and at the most, they would be convicted of their sins and make a lifestyle change (whatever the sin might be).  That looks like a win-win, whether you’re in the far-right evangelical camp, the left-leaning evangelical camp, or somewhere in the middle.  Who loses out here?  Nobody, by my reckoning.

Staying outside the box means raising children who also think outside the box, but that’s a post for another day.  Stay tuned.