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Justice

Welcoming People in from the Storm

This piece was recently featured by The Christian Citizen.

A few weeks ago, my husband Toby and I were sitting on the dock at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was around 4:30PM, and we were doing what we usually do about that time: fishing, eating cheese curds, and sipping a festive beverage or two. In short—nothing.

As we sat doing nothing on that lazy Wisconsin afternoon, we heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. Within minutes, the sound grew closer and stronger. Then, almost out of nowhere, a ferocious storm blew in. As we scurried into the cabin, the winds began howling across the lake, and the storm sirens in town started to wail.

Huddled in our living room, we listened to the tempest outside. Then, shockingly, amidst the claps of thunder, we heard a knock on the door. We peered out and it was our next-door neighbor. Utterly drenched, he came in and told us that his 2000-pound pontoon boat had just been picked up in the storm and flipped upside down on the lake.

In the middle of telling his story, another knock is heard and there was our neighbor who lived across the lake. She was in the area when the storm hit and got stuck because all the streets were blocked with downed trees. We lite some candles, pulled out food and drink, and sat together in the shelter of the cabin as the storm raged on.

What else could we do but welcome them in from the storm? It’s too bad we don’t follow that ethic in our nation and our world.

Every day, our neighbors come to our house, at our door, to find shelter from the storm.

And everyone is fighting some type of storm. We may not see the tempests immediately. People love to pretend that everything is perfect and lovely—God forbid we show vulnerability or admit we need help. But notwithstanding the faces people show, everyone has their storm.

Some storms are personal, like the storm of a difficult relationship or a family issue. A personal storm could also be a physical one, such as chronic pain, or a financial storm.

It could also be part of a national or global storm, like the storm of hatred and judgment toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Or the storm of racism and bigotry towards our brothers and sisters of color. There is the storm of ignorance waged against our Muslim brothers and sisters. And then there is the immigration storm that is raging in our country.

Every day, people from all over the world come to our house, and stand at our door, asking for shelter from the storms of poverty, tyranny, oppression and religious persecution.

And what do we do when our global neighbors come to our door?

We slam it in their face. And if that’s not bad enough, we take their children. While there are no hard and fast numbers, the estimate is over 3000 children separated from their parents at the border.

I imagine God in heaven, watching all this going on, preparing to yell down to earth:

“People! Have you read my book? It’s pretty well known. I bet you’ve heard of it . . . It’s called the BIBLE! If you had read it, you would see that I ‘execute justice for the orphan and the widow, and love the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deuteronomy 10:17).

You might also remember that I said, ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

If you’ve read nothing else, surely you remember my son Jesus’ powerful words in Matthew 25:42-45: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Something must change. And it can. Sharing hospitality and welcome is not that complicated. Just like on that stormy night in our cabin, it comes down to two basic things: food and shelter.

First, we must feed the people. Sure, that can mean literally offering food through a food bank, or soup kitchen, or cooking something to feed someone in need. But food can mean so much more. People are hungry in their hearts—hungry for affirmation/acceptance, hungry for respect and dignity, hungry for love. And we must be the ones to provide that food to all we meet, no matter storm brings them to our door.

We must also offer shelter. That can mean literally providing a place by supporting a homeless shelter or participating in the national sanctuary movement to help protect our immigrant brothers and sisters. It can also mean providing people with a spiritual or psychological safe space from the storm by welcoming them unconditionally and listening without judgment.

A few days after the storm on the lake, as I was flying back from Wisconsin to New York City, our plane banked right over the Statue of Liberty—the symbol of our nation—which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” How tragic that those beautiful words have been eclipsed by our nation’s hate, ignorance, and greed. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.

As Rachel Held Evans writes in her new book, Inspired, “The story isn’t over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the resistance is winning. The light is breaking through.”

Brothers and sisters, every single person we meet is going through some type of storm. And every day, people come to our house, to our door, looking for shelter.

Don’t shut them out.

Welcome them with hospitality. Offer them food and shelter. Let the light break through.

“For whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”

 

This column was drawn from a sermon given at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on June 24, 2018.

 

Empowerment Self care

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

(This piece was featured as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church as well as a nationally syndicated column.)

 

Thanks to a back injury last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time stretched out on my living room floor. If you’ve ever hurt your back, you know how this goes. At first, it’s not so bad. You have quiet time to read and catch up on your work. Then you move to what I like to call the trashy stage, when you’ve finished your work, and you start binging on things like “The View,” “Dr. Phil” and tacky Hollywood magazines. (By the way, did you hear that Brad and Jen are back together?)

Eventually, the time comes when even Hollywood gossip is not enough. That’s when it gets ugly, because then you have nothing to do but lie there surveying the nooks and crannies of your house that you wouldn’t ordinarily see.

My line of sight was directly under my couch. Much to my embarrassment, I saw, hiding in the shadows, a collection of coins and pens, one sock, several dust balls the size of a ferret, an old Verizon bill, and a small yellow cube, which turned out to be a wayward cheese appetizer from a cocktail party we gave back in December.

I had no idea all that mess was under there. I guess I’d never looked.

In retrospect, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to look at your house — even your life — with a view from the floor. It may not reveal the carefully crafted image that you prefer or want others to see, but it can show you the raw truth of how life really is.

If you took an honest look at your life with a view from the floor, what would you see? What things have you brushed aside or hidden away?

Maybe it is as simple as the stuff in your inbox that you keep shifting to the bottom because you don’t want to deal with it. Or perhaps it is a deeper issue such as conflicts in a relationship you don’t want to face, a financial problem you are trying to hide, or an addiction, illness or other aspects of yourself from which you’re running.

Our tendency to brush aside or hide away things holds true on a larger scale too. Every day in our “global house,” we sweep issues under the couch because no one wants to face the view from the floor. Consider the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (that no one wants to acknowledge), global warming (that no one wants to claim) or the deep-seated racism and discrimination in our country (that no one wants to admit, let alone take responsibility for).

There is a sad irony in of all this because like a wayward cheese appetizer, if left hidden, these things can easily degenerate and get messy. These are the things that need light, not shadows. These are the things that need to be brought out in the open, not swept under the couch. These are the things that need a housekeeper who cares.

Fortunately, we have one: God. The Psalmist tell us that God knows all about what lurks under our emotional couches: “O Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Psalms 139).

God sees with piercing clarity those troubled areas in our hearts, in our families, and in our world and still loves us unconditionally: “Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalms 139). If God is willing to look upon these hidden places with love, acceptance, even forgiveness, why shouldn’t we?

Last week, we lost Aretha Franklin, one of the world’s great creative artists. Of all her songs, my favorite was “Respect.” Aretha was right on so many levels — life really does come down to those seven letters: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We should respect our gift of life enough to claim who we are, deep down, in our hidden nooks and crannies. We should respect the lives of others enough to acknowledge their pain and suffering. We should respect our world enough to shine a light on injustice so that all can see.

What things in your life are hidden away that need to be seen?
What painful issues have been ignored that need to be discussed?
What parts of yourself do you need to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T?” enough to bring out into the light and heal?

Whatever it is, it’s OK. God already knows about it. And miraculously, we’re still unconditionally loved.

Gratitude Self care

Justifying Mac and Cheese Hot Dogs

This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media. Here it is, for example, in the Providence, RI paper.

Think about the last time you went shopping. When you got to the checkout counter, how many of the items in your cart did you actually need? Not all of them, I bet.

I, too, am guilty of buying items that aren’t exactly necessary. The last time I was at our cabin in Wisconsin, I visited a local butcher whose shop is known for its beautiful meat and creative flavorings. Intending only to purchase hamburger meat for our cookout, I was waylaid by a sign near the checkout counter that for me was like Odysseus’ sirens calling from the rocks (of the freezer section): “Mac and Cheese Hotdogs! A gooey favorite stuffed inside a premium wiener. Pasta and cheddar may ooze out while grilling.”

Four words rang in my head: Can’t. Live. Without. It.

Were these outrageous hotdogs absolutely necessary for my health and wellbeing?

Yes.

Okay, no. But clearly, the line between what I truly needed and what I simply wanted had become blurred.

Honestly, what do we really need beyond food, water, clothing, and shelter? And please understand that by food, water, clothing, and shelter, I don’t mean truffles, Perrier, Prada, and a McMansion. You can also live well with Ruffles, Pepsi, Payless, and a motorhome.

Some of you may argue, “I’ve worked hard. I deserve more than just the necessities for survival, because as Luke 10:7 says, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”

As my grandfather used to say, “true ‘nuf.” But that mentality can also become a vicious cycle. We reward ourselves with things beyond what we actually need to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between necessities and luxuries. Soon we lose track of what is enough, which causes us to overwork, overload, and overstress. And then we find ourselves in direct conflict with another Bible verse, one of The Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We can’t truly rest if we are constantly worried that we don’t have enough.

One way to break that cycle is to acknowledge what we have. Periodically, I like to pause and go through a list of five categories to remind myself of my blessings: health, means, love, beauty, and calling.

Health includes physical health and safety. Asking questions such as “Did I wake up this morning?” can help us focus on our most basic blessings with laser precision.

Means is the ability to provide for yourself. Can I afford to buy groceries (including a ridiculous luxury like mac and cheese hotdogs)? Can I pay my rent? Acknowledging the blessing of having the means to pay for what you need transforms the mundane task of writing checks into a sacred ritual.

Love is the blessing of family, friendship, and community. Do I have people around me who love me, honor me, and treat me with respect? Acknowledging love is also about reminding ourselves of the unconditional spiritual love that we all receive. As God says to us in Isaiah 43:1, “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

Beauty is anything that feeds the soul. Maybe you have a garden, or perhaps you have a Harley Davidson that you love. I have both in Wisconsin, but neither in New York City, so I give thanks for the wee plants in my apartment window and the tiny plastic model of a Harley Davidson Sportster on my desk.

Your calling is the reason you get up in the morning—a connection to something bigger than yourself. It could be your job or caring for your family or a loved one. Even if you are retired from your job and living alone, you still have a purpose. Your calling may be greeting the lonely person at the grocery store who is ignored by everyone else. Or it may be showing kindness to a telemarketer (unlike the rest of America). You matter, and for that, you should give thanks.

Will I give up my mac and cheese hotdogs? Maybe. Maybe not. What I will do is celebrate what they represent: the health that enables me to stand at the Weber and grill them, the means to buy them, the love of the family members who eat them, the beauty of the tiny pieces of pasta and cheese that ooze out, and the simple purpose of feeding body and soul. Most of all, I will try, before I even take a bite, to raise up a prayer of thanks and acknowledge that it is enough.

 

 

Justice Uncategorized

Separate But Equal is Alive and Well

Such an honor to be mentioned in this powerful article by my friend Mitch Carnell on the Southern Baptist Church’s refusal to ordain women.

Still.

In 2018.

Here is an excerpt:

“Growing up Southern Baptist, my experience with women pastors is limited, but I have been blessed by hearing some of the best: Linda McKinnish Bridges, Amy Butler, Molly Marshall, Joan Brown Campbell, Cynthia Campbell, Julie Pennington-Russell, Susan Sparks and Martha Brown Taylor, to name only a few.

Not only have I been blessed by hearing these women, I have gained so much insight from them.

I regularly listen to and read Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

She places God in the center of our every action and has a sense of humor and such an awareness of God’s presence in the ordinary that you are compelled to listen and take notice.

. . .

How can you say that God rejects the work of these ambassadors of hope because they dare preach to men?

. . .

All of these women were gifted by God with talents far greater than the ones given to me. I think God brought me into contact with them because they had been given a message I was intended to hear.

I ask myself, “Where would I be in my spiritual journey if these women were not a part of my life?”

Complementarianism belongs on the ash heap of history along with separate but equal.”

AMEN Mitch!

Please take time to read the entire article linked above. It offers a powerful argument supporting women in ministry.

Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com.

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Empowerment Risk and Reinvention

The Power of Words

Last Sunday I was honored to receive the John Haber Award for the Arts from the University of North Carolina. I was the twentieth recipient. The first recipient, comedian Lewis Black, was in attendance to give the award. Below is an excerpt from my ceremony comments. I hope you enjoy them.

While I got a great education at UNC, I can’t remember specific classes or professors . . . except one: rhetoric. Yeah, yeah, I know what you are thinking: “Wow, now THAT sounds interesting.” But the fact is it wasn’t just interesting—it changed my life.

I entered the course my first semester of sophomore year in 1985. Our teacher, a vibrant, charismatic young Associate Professor named Robbie Cox, taught us—a bunch of privileged white southern kids—the basic principles of argument and persuasion. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, he introduced an unexpected source. He asked us to read the text of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. Most of us had heard clips of it (the speech had been given twenty years prior), but never actually read it.

We spent the next several weeks analyzing his masterpiece. We examined how Dr. King anticipated and debunked opposing arguments, how he used logic, statistics, data and emotion to reach the broadest possible audience, and how he carefully crafted and layered his arguments so as to lead to only one conclusion. We also studied his use of tools like alliteration (“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation”) and repetition (“Let freedom ring,” and “I have a dream today”) to engage and persuade his listeners.

Finally, the day came when our professor showed us the film of the full speech. We watched the grainy black and white images of Dr. King mesmerizing the massive crowd gathered on the Washington Mall, and of listeners wiping away tears. We heard his powerful ringing voice delivering the words we had studied so carefully. When the film was done, Dr. Cox stopped the projector, pointed at the frozen image of the crowds on the Mall, and said, “that—that my friends, is the power of words.”

I left class that day knowing my calling: Like Dr. King, I wanted to learn to wield the power of words (written and spoken) to change the trajectory of people’s thoughts and opinions, to lift people up, to bring hope.

I’ve spent the last thirty years doing just that. I’ve studied words through a law degree, a Master of Divinity, and years of comedy training. But while I’m still learning, the goal remains the same: to use words to bring hope and joy where there may be none.

And please understand, this is not just my calling, it’s our calling. It’s a calling that we can all claim . . . because words—our words—can change the world.