Do We Know What It is to Wait?

imageSomething beautiful happens in our spirit when we wait in prayer. The quiet of that space stills us and reminds us we are not in control. Different things draw each of us to seek the comfort of God’s quiet holy embrace, but I wonder in this life if all of us really know what it means to wait?

I have walked where bellies are swollen from lack of food to eat.  I have touched the face of a small child hours before she took her last breath.  I have prayed with a man who lives behind a wall.  I have witnessed an entire community living in thirst, while I myself held in my hands a bottle of water to drink.

I have never suffered from hunger or thirst I could not readily fix. I am someone who when I speak others listen to me. I have waited in pain and in grief, but I worry I’ll forget my wait is not just about me.

During advent we wait for something just beyond our reach. It’s the hope that rose up a love so powerful it is able to unite a whole world. To wait in this way means to hunger and thirst for a world where children will no longer live with swollen bellies.  We agonize for a glimpse of a Kingdom where all will live with just enough.  It’s a wait for brothers and sisters everywhere to live free and a wait that has less to do about a specific you or me.

Yet, when in our lives we are the we that live with more than enough, I wonder if we really know what it means to wait? God calls God’s people to gather in prayer, so the eyes of our spirit connect us in spirit with all God’s children everywhere.  In the quiet and stillness of our Holy Wait, God grows in us the love we are called to live with in our wait.  It’s a love that calls for loss of control and release of ourselves for the sake of the whole.  God calls to us all to be still, to be quiet, and know that cries in the night are heard by the God who gives us the gift of love with the power to unite.

So during advent be silent and still.  Light a candle and let the light of it guide you to the love God instills.  Pray for the courage and strength to join with others in prayer, so that the light we share together will be what guides us in our wait.

Light

Light nestles in the crevices of my mind.
I did not invite it, but it refuses not to
come in.
I turn my back on it, not ready for its message
of hope. Sometimes its too much too feel hopeful.
The pain of so many young lives
robbed still rings in the air all around
me. I try to imagine the tears that fall from
the eyes of so many–the families, the community,
the world–I imagine them falling into my hands.
I wish I could catch them all, but I can’t.
My hands are too small. My hands are just too small.
And yet I know there is one whose hands are capable of catching
these tears, of holding them sacred for us all.
So I turn to the light, I allow it to bathe
my face, sing softly to my spirit, and lead me by
the hand from the precipice of  this darkness,                                                                                                                                                     moment by moment to                                                                                                                                                                                                          the awaiting beams of God’s radiant light….

Written for the victims of the Sandy Hook Shooting, Conneticut

Grace

There are moments in your life that are such a gift they become captured in time returning to the forefront of your memory to bless you again and again. This advent, I have been turning over one of my favorite memories like a cherished gem till the shine of it has filled my spirit with a renewed sense of Faith, Hope, and Love.

Years ago, while I was in seminary, I was invited to join a team of advocates in the Holy Land to be trained to teach on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Part of the experience was to be immersed in different areas so that we might hear the stories of the people. We stayed in a refugee camp, spent time with Israeli’s whose family members had been killed by suicide bombers, and with Christians who shared their disappointment at how many Christians around the world visit the Holy Land while never visiting the “living stones”–the people of the land.

After our immersion experience was through, we were scheduled to visit with people involved with peace initiatives. Though the light of hope was scheduled for the next day, we the people of God were sitting in the darkness of the stories we held and we wondered how the light would pierce through the darkness of them.

A woman in the group began to sing. We looked at her like she was crazy and she said, in the darkest of nights, light was born into the world–a light so bright even death could not hold it back. She continued to sing the words of an ancient hymn called, “alleluia!” One by one we began to sing this song of good news with her. Our spirits began to turn towards the hope of what the new day would bring, for light is indeed promised to the people who walk in the good news the reign of Jesus brings.

As we were wrestling as a group of how to find our way to the light, there was an internal wrestle I was managing as well.  I had been praying about whether I would seek ordination as a Deacon or an Elder in the United Methodist Church. I could not find a place of rest in my spirit and the wrestle grew during my journey.  In the midst of learning about this deep conflict in the Holy Land, I experienced a sense of peace in the midst of our receiving Holy Communion.  It was the gift that I wanted to be able to give to a broken world–the good news of the God that does not leave us in our broken mess. I learned in one of the most conflicted parts of the world the gift God called me to give to the world in my ministry–the Word of God, Presiding over the gift of the Sacraments, Ordering the life of the Church, and Serving in the best of times and the worst of times…..

…..I ran into the woman who led us in song on that trip recently at a conference. I looked at her and she looked at me and we fell into a warm embrace. I shared with her my story of finding my way to my calling in the Holy Land and she smiled, revealing she had not known the deep inner journey I was on in the midst of our training.  The stories between us fell back and forth naturally and eventually we parted ways, but the chance meeting at the conference drew forth from me the memory of this story that remains a precious gem–it is a gift to remember our calling.

My calling might have started out like a whisper, but it lives in me now like a flame. Where once before I could not imagine myself ever being able to preach, now I don’t know what to do if I am not. Where I never felt holy enough to preside over the sacraments, I now worry for those who feel unworthy to receive God’s mercy and grace in their lives. Where I once wondered if I could ever lead a church, I now long for a church full of those seeking actually to be led.

The journey of our lives is one that leads us through valleys, with the promise of mountains in between. The air on the mountain is clear and good, but we are called to the journey–the step by step Kingdom building journey of making the love of God real in the lives of those who live in darkness.  The gift of this journey is the Joy of witnessing people come alive and witnessing the gift of coming alive ourselves.  I was glad to run into the woman who led me to sing “alleluia” during a dark night. She is a tiny Philippino woman, who wears cowboy boots, and whose name just happens to be….GRACE!  I give thanks this advent season for all those who spoke God’s calling into my life and for the moments when God’s grace has met me in the place of my deepest need.  I celebrate this season of LIGHT and the gift of good news we remember in it–Emmanuel–God is with us!

Deep Peace be with you this advent season my friends….

To Be Available…

A couple of weeks ago, I was preaching on the text in Mark 10:17-31 where Jesus is approached by a Rich Man  who asks him how he might inherit eternal life.  It is quite a challenging passage.  Jesus tells the man to follow the commandments and when the man reports that he has, Jesus shares with him that he should sell all his stuff, give it to the poor, and join up with Jesus and the rest of the disciples.  It is challenging.  As I wrestled through the passage with the congregation, a voice shouted out from the middle of the room, “Amen!  Amen!”

The voice was “Chilly Willy,” one of Charlotte’s most colorful street personalities.  I was excited to hear an “Amen” and then I was startled.  What brought him to our church on this day?  He had been before, but for him to be sitting not in the back, but right in the middle as this particular text was read made the reality of the divides we live in more striking.  “Chilly Willy” was a man that challenged me.  He challenged me because I didn’t always have a good answer for him.   There were no eyes that could avert his presence on this Sunday because he was making his presence known. He refused to be ignored. I am thankful he was with us on that day, but I would be lying if I didn’t also share that it was a challenge.

After the service had concluded, I was standing at the front door and he approached me to tell me that he enjoyed my message.  He shared with me that his father was a minister and then broke the conversation we were in to look at me and say, “If I didn’t hear you preach, I would never believe anyone as pretty as you was a preacher.  If I can ever get cleaned up, would you do me the honor of marrying me?”  I smiled and laughed awkwardly and we parted ways.  Later on he found me in my office and shared he needed a ride.  One of our members volunteered to get him back to Moore House where he had found housing and that was the last I heard of “Chilly Willy.”

I read in the paper the next week that he had been hit by a car.  Chilly Willy died four days after I sat with him–four days.  Though he challenged me, I was thankful that he was with us the day I was preaching on that text.  I needed to see the chains of his life and the chains of mine and I needed to be with him.  I didn’t have an answer for him.  I didn’t know what to do about the fact that he wasn’t allowed on the bus anymore for his drunken-ness,  I wished he hadn’t asked me to marry him with stale liquor on his breath, for then I might have just driven him home myself.  Instead, a “male” someone else did.

There are people who stay with you–moments spent with them that linger.  Even before I learned of Chilly Willy’s death, the time with him lingered.  I don’t think I am the only one who had these moments with him.  I believe his life was hauntingly prophetic in a painfully broken way.  I believe this man who refused to be ignored, shook many of us from the realities that we live with every day.  We have the choice to avert our eyes–we can stay on the other side of the street and not know about the broken-ness, the pain, and the certain joys that filled his life and the lives of many others like him.

As I shared this story with a Sunday School class the week after Chilly Willy’s death, a man in the class said with conviction, “Michelle…I think what you are saying is it is important for us to be available?”  Yes–Yes–this is what I believe I was trying to say, to be available in a moment is something I believe Jesus calls us to and it was something he called the Rich Man to.  He called him to be wholly available for the life God was calling him to.  He called the man to join a journey that would drag him through valleys and propel him on top of mountains–a journey that would fill him with such purpose and hope that he would find it JOY to live this way, no matter the cost.

Do we say, “yes” to this?  Do we?  Do we avert our gaze when Jesus asks too much from us?  I recognized with Chilly Willy that he was a witness to me–an invitation to be more available…  Isn’t this the gift of it all for us–that the God of the Heavens and the Earth chose to make himself more available to us–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we find God with us.  As I celebrate the gift of a new year, I hope that Jesus continues to interrupt my life with characters that refuse to be ignored. My hope and my prayer is that I will not avert my gaze, but that I will understand the gift it is to simply be with some of the others that God created in God’s own image…the gift is simply to be…

I celebrate on this “All Saints Day”–my birthday, the gift of time spent with a man who taught me how important it is to be available, Mr. “Chilly Willy” who was born into this world under the name of William Major.

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On the banks of the Tallahatchie…

This reflection was written during my fellowship year in Mississippi–2007

I stood on the banks of the Tallahatchie River today and I wept.  I wept for hearing the story of a fourteen-year-old boy Emmett Till—an African American boy who was killed in 1955.  He was brutally murdered and thrown in the river with an industrial fan tied around his neck.  To think that hate could kill a boy—a black boy—for whistling at a woman—a white woman.   I stood on the banks of the river and experienced the blood of this boy crying out from the land.  It was as if his blood was thumping like a drum and joined with his blood was the blood of a people—my people-the Native Americans of this land.  Those that I was gathered with joined together in prayer and I recognized I was experiencing a connection to my own people through lamenting the death of a fourteen year old African American boy.

My life has not been an easy life, but it would not be because I was oppressed for the color of my skin or the heritage of my people.  I was raised with the privilege afforded white people—people that looked like me and in fact, that would be the place where I feel my feet standing most firmly—in privilege.  My people though are many—they are Native American, they are Scottish, they are English, and they are like my last name “Shrader” German.  What does it mean that in my veins I have the blood of a people that have been oppressed and a people who oppressed?  What does this mean?  This question beat like a drum in my head as I stood on the banks of the Tallahatchie River lamenting the death of a fourteen-year-old boy and it beats in my head like a drum still today.

My mother’s people are mostly of the Lumbee tribe of Indians in North Carolina.  As a child, I learned the story of the Lumbee watching outdoor dramas, going to Pow Wow’s, and listening to stories told by my family and people in the community.  Now that I am an adult, I realized that this heritage is a place I visited, but not a place I lived.  To be connected to oppression on a visit is not the same as living in it and so I have felt a disconnect for not having the right color skin, the right costume, or the zip code that places me in the land with the people, so then who am I?  Who am I, when I know that in my veins runs the blood of these people?  For a long time I thought this question was just for me, but now I believe it is a question for every one who claims themselves to be Christian…”Who are we?”

I wonder looking back on that day as I stood on the bank of the Tallahatchie River whether it was my blood pounding like a drum in my ears or the Holy Spirit rattling me into my true identity.  I cannot live at home in the land of plenty, knowing that there are those in my family tree who live a life so different than me.  I can not get used to a life that others could never dream of.  So, the answer to what it means to have running in my veins the blood of people who have been oppressed and those who oppress is that anyone who calls themselves Christian must stand with me.  Jesus calls us to acknowledge every part of our family tree and for those who live on my land, it means that we have to hear the blood beating in our head like a drum calling forth from us a life lived into our true identity.  We must live and work for the day when “ALL” are free from the division that lives inside and outside of me.

The Case of the Missing Pew….

Recently, I moved from the state of Mississippi to Charlotte, North Carolina.  The transition was unexpected–just as unexpected as the transition to Mississippi was after I graduated from seminary years ago.  As the movers were bringing in my things, I noticed the shape of a piece of furniture.  As my mind began to reel working to figure out what it might be, my pulse began to rise.  When the blankets fell away and the furniture was revealed, I realized I had just solved the case of the missing pew!

In the middle of the pew, still intact, was the note I had written to the movers, “Do not move–this stays here!”  Yet, somehow  this pew that belonged to my former church had followed me all the way to Charlotte.  It is not something to be proud of–stealing a church pew!  Yet, as I have wondered how to get it back to Mississippi, I have been thankful for its arrival, for it has forced me to reflect on the journey I have been on for the last several years.

I graduated from Duke with many offers at my feet.  I could have worked with an Archbishop in Israel/Palestine, with several congregations around the world and nation, but in the end each of the twelve positions I was offered I turned down because I wanted to spend some time in deep reflection about how to be a pastor that stands in divides and points to a different way.  I wanted to engage for a time with a community that was a shining star in terms of working to break down barriers in attempt to fill their pews with all God’s Children.  So, I decided to engage in a one year fellowship looking specifically at intentional reconciliation relating to religion & race.

About three weeks away from graduation, I received a phone call from a man named Keith Tonkel in Jackson, Mississippi.  He was calling to tell me he’d be happy to take me to lunch and share stories once I got settled in the church he thought I would be working at near him.  I shared with him that “sadly, I turned that position down because—it didn’t feel right.”  Keith asked me to share my entire story with him and so I did.  Afterwards, he said, “this might sound crazy, but would you let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a position.”  It was crazy, but I flew there in complete trust that somehow this connection was important.

When I met Keith at the church, I walked in and was overcome with a sense of excitement that indeed this felt like the right place.  He called an emergency meeting with his leadership afterwards, they heard my story, and voted unanimously for me to engage in my fellowship year as part of their community in Jackson, Mississippi.  I had never heard of Keith Tonkel before, but he is a pastor who has grown an incredibly beautiful community.  He was part of a group of pastors who signed a statement called the “Born of Conviction” statement during the Civil Rights years that stated that they would work to break down the divides in the communities particularly around the issue of segregation during that time.  His years in ministry have been challenging, but the fruit of his faithfulness is evident in the congregation that he serves.  Wells Memorial UMC in Jackson is known as the most integrated church in the state of Mississippi.  My one year never ended and I decided to stay on in Mississippi to continue serving at Wells and to step into leadership with the Commission of Religion & Race.

People have asked me over the years, “What did you learn while serving under Keith?”  I learned a lot under Keith, but mostly I learned who I want to be.  I want to be someone who is constantly asking God to help me see through the present into God’s future.  I want to see possibility in people, in the stories in my community, and on out  into the world as well.  I want to be someone who recognizes the gifts of others and the potential in us all to live into the story God is writing all around us.  I want to be someone like Keith who lives in FAITH, with great HOPE, and with a boundary crossing LOVE.

I want to know that my life has been a gift in relation to the case of the missing pews in our churches–how can we have pews that represent the radically creative nature of our truly amazing God.  If our pews all look the same, then I believe we are missing out on a wonderful gift that God desires for us–the rich witness of God’s creatively knit community.  I wondered how my transition to Charlotte would be.  What I have found so far is that there is a wonderful journey unfolding before me.  There are fantastic people traveling on the road right beside me and many asking wonderful questions that I believe will keep us moving in the direction of continuing to wrestle with this case of the missing pew…

Chosen Family

This is the picture of my ordination on June 12, 2011.  It is a day I will never forget.  I was not sure what to expect of the day, for so many of those who walked with me from the beginning of my journey were places far away.  Some were able to make it and some were not.  Yet, the day was more special than I could have ever imagined, for reasons I never would have guessed.  Two days before the Pastor I worked under at Wells United Methodist Church in Jackson, Keith Tonkel, called to tell me that his wife Pat Tonkel had died.  She had been suffering with a brain tumor for some time and had not been doing well.  Keith was the pastor I had chosen to stand with me during my ordination.  I shared with him I could invite another pastor if he was unable.  He assured me he would be there, but I wondered if that was where he should be.  I had another pastor ready just in case, but as the clergy were all lining up to prepare to walk out for the service…Keith walked in.

I am not sure who started the singing, but all of the clergy gathered in the rehearsal hall began singing “It is well with my soul.”  I will never forget that moment.  I walked up to Keith and stood with him tears streaming down my face.  He was looking around at all the people he had walked with over the years with a radiance upon his face I did not expect.  I wondered whether or not Keith needed to be at my ordination, but he did need to be there.  He needed that moment with the Pastors who were a big part of his life over the years and I needed that moment to remember what he taught me about “chosen family.”

Keith often spoke of “Chosen Family” at Wells.  We might not have a choice over our biological families, but we do indeed have choice over the family we choose to step into and embrace as a part of our Christian Faith.   Jesus talks a bit about this sort of family experience.  Mary comes to find him one day and those around him alert him that his mother is near looking for him.  Jesus shares that his family members are those who choose to do God’s will.  I am sure those around him were quite perplexed, but at the same time enthralled by this understanding that if they choose to do God’s will they are swept up into the divine embrace of God’s chosen family.

The week before my commissioning service three years ago, I was in North Carolina attending a Peace Conference that a mentor and dear friend of mine was speaking at, Peter Storey.  I shared with him the challenges and the blessings of my ministry and he listened intently.  Before we parted ways, he leaned down and kissed me on my forehead.  He shared with me that he was very proud of me.  Peter Storey has seen days more difficult than mine.  Yet, I will never forget that kiss on my forehead.  I touched my hand to my forehead before I was commissioned three years ago and again on the day of my ordination June 12th calling to mind the many people who make up my chosen family.  You are the people who help to keep me on the path of the faithful followers of God.

Know that I am so thankful to be with all of you on this journey–whether we are near one another or far apart!

With you on the journey

During my first couple of years in ministry, I recognized that many of the people in the churches I was serving believed that the Pastors in their midst had all the answers.  I would receive all of these really amazing questions and for a time I tried my best to answer them.  Eventually, I shared with the people who I was in ministry with that though I might have a seminary degree, I was still with them on the journey.  My hope is that this blog spot will be a place where you will encounter a strong awareness that there is also one greater than I that walks with you on the journey!

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