I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my visits to Russia, once when it was the USSR, and once after it dissolved. I was reading through my journals about the trip the other day, and I thought I would honor that young girl by first sharing some of her insights about the trip. I was the youngest member of a delegation of the National Council of Churches, being only 24. I had to study extensively before hand as well as attend briefings for days at Columbia University in New York City before we left. It was 1984, and there was still a cold war, but I believed that this opportunity was a God-given one that I couldn’t pass up. There are so many more stories that I can’t print here, but I want to offer some of the insights that shaped my future thoughts

Notes during our briefings

Like America, there seems to be a big difference between the people and those in power. The big difference is the sense of futility of the Soviet people feel in overtly doing anything about the injustice they are forced to live with. I was also amazed at the structured and networked way people work around the system. I’ve always believed things are not always what they seem to be, that we live in a time of Olympic level charades-the feeling that things are not what they appear to be. In the USSR it must be overpowering. Again, the difference between the two countries is not just ideology but one of survival. All the bullshit in America is who can get ahead-who can accumulate the most. The feelings in Russia are to survive, to beat an unfair system-yet Hedrick Smith says they’re very generous people-they love to share gifts with people. We are not allowed to bring any denim and the woman have to wear skirts or dresses. Clothes of the west are a hot commodity. They asked us to bring pins to share, I am completely unprepared.

about the Olympic boycott

I’ve just heard about the boycott of the Russians to our Olympics. I’m sad that our two countries keep egging each other on.What will this do to my trip? I’m beginning to realize the seriousness of what I’m about to do. I’m nervous because I don’t know what to expect, but don’t want to push any preconceived ideas into my thinking.

On the the trip    the-children      russia-friends

After our city tour, we went to a small village church. The pastor’s name was Basil and I know what will have been the highlight of my trip was the children, it was wonderful! There is no way I can explain it in words…just freedom. Fr Basil took us to his “home” where we had another “gala” dinner-we made many toasts (too much vodka). During one of the toasts by Fr Innocent (irony of the year) I started to cry, partly because I’m tired, but mostly because of the double speak, the secret language of the heart and the language of the mouth, or party line, which I’ve had pretty much enough of by now. My eye contact with people has become quite piercing…and they don’t like it, not at all. But you see, you have to look so deeply for the truth and when they deceive and you’re looking deep into their eyes, they can’t hold your gaze. It started having a bad effect on people…not speaking but just forcing eye contact. I hoped my eyes say “I see YOU”. It was when we visited the collective farm I wanted to scream “Do you really think we’re that stupid?” It doesn’t matter to me that you’re trying to impress me, what I want is the truth…a rare commodity here. I’m tired of the press, people taking our pictures and the presence of the KGB. Do they think I can’t tell the difference between a real seminarian and a Soviet officer, especially the way they look me up and down?

Zagorsk    zagorsk-2  zagorsk-3   zagorsk-4

Celebrating the high holiday for Russian Orthodox-Pentecost, at Zagorsk, which is their equivalent of Rome was beyond words. When our many buses drove into the monastery, there were thousands waiting to greet us. Walking through all those people just staring at us made me realize that we were definitely on display. The whole experience was beautiful and breathtaking and yet completely freaked me out.

The cantata at the Baptist Church   cantata

There was quite a bit of excitement at the Baptist Church. They had prepared a special cantata for us and it was really beautiful. But after the music was over, some people held banners over the balcony claiming in English that many pastors of Baptist Churches were being imprisoned. I was astounded, everything had been so “perfect” until this point. Our leaders avoided it and we were basically told from everyone, what you saw, you didn’t see. Afterwards, I could see one of the wives giving an interview with journalists. I am impressed by her determination and guts and will pray for her protection.

Gala Dinner Menu (one of many)          gala-dinner

Cocktail/Salad: rolled ham stuffed with eggs, stuffed hard boiled egg with tomato, salmon and white fish, tomatoes, and breads with caviar. This served with vodka, also for toasting.

First course: crepes and black caviar. Served with red wine.

Second course: Chicken Kiev, with vegetables and rice in a puffed pastry. Served with white wine.

Dessert: Ice cream and filled cake. Served with Champagne.

Coffee: biscuits,cheeses. Served with cognac.

Dancing, and most were a bit drunk…Cheers to my Irish tolerance (and I did toastes with water, not vodka)

Leaving the USSR  propaganda   soldiers

I’m in the Moscow airport ready to board the plane for Amsterdam. My feelings are mixed. I’m sad to leave because I feel like I haven’t seen enough-but the tension of this society is so oppressive that I can’t breathe. I’ve also felt disillusioned about this trip. It seemed to be so much media hype for our Leader—– I don’t like to be part of diplomatic niceties which I feel most of this trip was, especially near the end. There were times when I felt like I was on the mountain being tempted by the Devil with all the fanfare, pampering and “gala” dinners. Everything. was. just. too. nice. It makes me wonder what the results of our trip will really be. Will all the frosting hide justice? i.e.the women at the baptist church.

Amsterdam     amsterdam

The lay over in Amsterdam was a needed break. My wild side came out, and I’m sure a bit of repressed anger too. I waltzed some of the ministers down to the red light district..he he. Their faces as they looked at the prostitutes in the store fronts doing their best come hither, is something I will never forget.

Home     breifing

They said everything was a perfect success. I began to panic because I knew I had to tell people about my experience-that was part of the deal. While going to the USSR was a dream, I had to borrow against my next year salary to do this, with the little I make working with the church it was such a risk. I thought I would be making a real difference, and now I wonder. One of the youth group members committed suicide just as I was arriving home. Physically her life was nice, like our peace mission. Nice isn’t enough, it just can’t be. Christianity can’t always be nice. Peace should be defined by more than nice. It means pain, sacrifice, being vulnerable, being scared and letting go in the face of it. I didn’t get that from the leadership of either country. I felt those things personally and I’m angry that those feelings were never supported by a group speaking in my name too.

We Americans and the Soviets are different, I accept that. I accept protocol and diplomacy are very important. We depended too much on behaving “appropriate” and not enough on being Christians. Our connection was our mutual faith. The Church’s route just has to be different than a political one, it has to be. Politics is rooted in a struggle for power, Christianity is rooted in the spread of the gospel and love. Human beings have proven through history that they are incapable of bringing about lasting peace by their own initiative. It doesn’t matter how good and noble the intentions are if they become egocentric somehow.

Because I am young, the youngest that went by far, my insight and intuition isn’t quite as keen as it will be some day. God has blessed me with much potential, though. So I will listen to how deeply disturbed I feel. There was so much going on in the Soviet Union on a completely different level. I could tell by eye contact, body language, atmosphere-the shadow language. It was all very subtle, but clear enough to demand attention, because when added to the whole picture, my impressions were radically altered. My struggle will be to create an honest picture without embellishment.

Afterwards, I was relieved when a journalist called to get my opinion of the trip. Excited to tell my truth, we talked for a long while. When the article came out in a national paper, not only wasn’t I mentioned, but it “nice.” In my mind, I had been censored and rendered insignificant. I became depressed and disillusioned after that. I spoke three times about my trip, the bare minimum and I continued to worry and pray about the baptist ministers wife and what the truth really was….so I went back, four years later……

In My Shoes

my shoes

I think this will be my last post detailing my year of clarity. I feel complete, for now anyway, and want to enter into the season of light focused only on that. It seems funny that showing you the context of all my previous posts this year will be the subject of my last. I think it’s because I needed to do the journey first, before I open up my coat and share life in my shoes. Perhaps then you can understand why I believe as I do and maybe take something away that you can use on your own journey. The bottom line, is that I can never unhear, all I’ve heard; I can’t unsee all I’ve seen; and most importantly I can’t unknow all I’ve learned. I am who I am because of it.

Also, I needed to have the strength to say to those who are reading this just to be judgmental or to find fuel for your dislike, to say stop reading, or better yet, go ahead, keep reading…because I don’t give a shit anymore. I don’t wish you ill, but I certainly don’t wish you well. Harsh, it’s true. But I think I’ve spent too much time parsing words and feelings not to offend anyone, or try to be my best Solomon in all my posts. While being fair and balanced and living as a disciple of Christ is still my main objective, this election cycle has brought out the true character of many who I just won’t waste my time or breath on anymore. I embrace that is who you are, I just don’t have to listen to you anymore. Make no mistake, I am not talking about those who have a polar opinion from mine, there are still plenty of you in my posse…I’m talking about those who judge before they listen, embrace fear, refuse to look for truth, or only enough to justify their world view and those who only associate with people who are just like them. While the number I disassociate from may be few, it is something I have never done before but need to because of the impact it was having in my life. What’s funny, is I’m sure those people will never know it because they stopped really seeing or listening to me a long time ago.

No axiom, truth or ideology ever comes to me lightly, except the love of God and the call to be a disciple of Christ. While I may be a good student, I am not an easy one. I’ve pissed and moaned and thrown many a tantrum learning valuable lessons. So let me highlight just a few of those instrumental ports of call on my journey of faith. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be like one of those infernal slide shows that go on forever…just a few tidbits. Know that there are some givens: I have a great family, I’m blessed with privilege and a great deal of comfort. The experience that follows are in addition to, or in spite of.

When I was in college, I used a January term to live in a contemplative monastery in the desert of New Mexico. During my stay at Christ in the Desert, we began our day at 2:30 in the morning to pray according to the divine office of the Rule of St Benedict, an order that balances prayer and work. Without going into depth, I understand why Jesus began his ministry in the desert, in prayer and silence. It was the hardest (and not just because I wasn’t allowed to talk) and most transforming experience of my life. I fought with and conquered many internal demons over that month. It was the foundation for everything that what was to come.

The next January term, I chose to work with the United Farm workers (UFW) movement in La Paz California. There, I saw what solidarity behind a spiritual and nonviolent leader, Caesar Chavez, could do for the powerless and disenfranchised. I was also witness to racism for the first time in my life, and how protesters gallantly withstood all the horrible words and actions taken against them, all just because they desired to be treated fairly, with dignity and pride. I worked as a laborer that month, it was hard, humbling and it refined and polished me in ways I never could have predicted.

After I started working in ministry, I received the chance to travel with the National Council of Churches to then Soviet Russia. It was a terrifying, mind boggling, heart wrenching, uplifting, life transforming experience. It was during that trip at the ripe age of 24 when I saw the impact and effects of raw political power. It was there that I learned to recognize its lizard qualities that slithered and slimed their way into the world. I was no longer the naive, altruistic girl that I once was living in a global world.  I went back four years later to see how it had progressed, doubting that democracy could ever work there efficiently…I was right, it couldn’t. Not that its people aren’t marvelous, they are…there were actually more Christians there than members of the communist party. Politics, though, are another story. It is also why I despise Putin so much.

Throughout my ministry, I worked with the poor and homeless, did respite for the mentally disabled, worked in a nursing home, a drug treatment center for adolescents, was part of a team who worked with modern media and the gospel message. I got to teach, write curriculum and preach the good new of Christ. It wasn’t always easy, but I learned so much and was graced with interacting with so many incredible people. I’ve worked with prisoners and laborers, met rock stars, politicians in Washington and media moguls. I’ve eaten on clay floors and dined on Italian marble. In every one of these experiences people are often the same with varying levels of brokenness. Every one of them needed love beyond the basic dignities of life.

I’ve had the pleasure of having many gay friends who have shown me great sacrifice and commitment in being able to love who their heart chooses. When I was teaching, I was blessed to live in a wonderful neighborhood far beyond my pay grade when I was rented a room in a house from an incredible lesbian woman and her daughter, also gay, and who is now an incredibly powerful pastor in Minneapolis. I will attest to the beauty and strength of all my gay friends and their families and children, and am happy to have them in my life and the life of my family and children too. It is so natural and easy to love them and support them, I cannot fathom why anyone would not (which is a bit sarcastic because traditional religion is the true culprit for all the hate).

I’ve learned to understand sexual abuse, mental illness, suicide and PTSD, all first hand from students, friends and family. I’ve had to live with structural and physical maladies that have greatly altered and challenged my life. Yet in all these times, that in spite of these challenges I was always aware of and felt God’s presence. In fact, all these challenges gave root to all of Jesus teachings for me. The Gospel doesn’t make sense in a perfect hardship free life. Personally, I’ve endured misogyny and abuse, and also great and deep love and support. It’s true, that when you most need them, in the darkest of times special people enter your life to be what you need, and then are on their way.

My latest destination on my journey is to this small little hamlet on the St Croix river. It is insular and safe, uncomplicated and many times without the challenges of the greater world. It was a good place to raise my children except I could never let them be part of the bubble that can exist here. I had walked too far for that. I left my church here, and found another that had a more open world view. And to my boys, I know I forced you to give your Christmas to a poor family, invite the fringe to all your birthday parties, serve on mission trips and study  the bible, and challenge every assumption or stereotype you threw in my face. I demanded you research and listen and be open to others, and dad, more than me made you put only good things in your bodies. Hopefully you will thank me for it some day, cause I am sure proud of how you turned out. We have a wonderful business that brings health to our community and our patients are some of the best people I have ever known.

So after all these steps, this is why I refuse to stand for bigotry and hate. This is why I stand for all my LBGTQ brothers and sisters. This is why I will fight for people of all ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political ideologies. This is why I stand for truth and will never shy away from pointing out inaccuracies that so deeply penetrate our media today. This is why I try so hard to root the Gospel in the most subtle of actions and behaviors. I am who I am, never to be pigeon holed into a left or right column, or belittled by any limiting moniker. My path is one of power and love, because I am a child of God and these are MY shoes. And as a servant of Christ I will fight for your shoes too.


Rendering Unto Ceasar


Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census to Caesar or not?’

Knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, “Caesar’s,’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’

Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s is found both in the gospel of Mark and the gospel of Matthew. The two parables are different, but important in understanding the lesson that follows. In one parable we come to understand what belongs to God, and in the other, who controls the timing and invitation to God’s Kingdom. The phrase “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s” is not mutually exclusive, one guides the other.

In Mark, Jesus tells a story about a man who labored and built a vineyard and leased it out to tenants and went on a long journey. At the proper time, he sent his servants to obtain a sample of the produce of the vineyards. Some servants were beaten, others killed, all were sent away empty handed. When the owner sent his beloved son, thinking that they would respect him, they killed him desiring his inheritance. When Jesus posited to the crowd what the owner would do, they said the owner would kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others. To which Jesus responded: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

So in this story, what belongs to God? The tenants believed that the fruits of their labor were theirs alone. How many of us still believe that? We forget that all we have comes from God. When God asks us for something, a mere sample, we are expected to give it, but not to show how generous we are, but as a sign of gratitude and a reminder that it was never ours to begin with. Remember in the story all the owner is asking for is for a sample of the produce, not enough to ruin the tenant but simply as a reminder of what they owner gave them since he labored and built it up to begin with. Celebrating all that God has built for us should be the only incentive we need to share our good fortune. The rejection of the Owner’s son happens every time we fail to understand that all our gifts come from God and when we refuse to share with the least of our brothers and sisters, we are refusing God. It is the least among us that the Kingdom is built on. Face it, we are all tenants on this earth at the grace of God.

In Matthew’s version, he likens the Kingdom of God to a King who gave a wedding feast. When the feast was ready, he dispatched his servants to invite the guests to share in his celebration but they wouldn’t come. He dispatched other servants and implored them to tell his guests that the banquet was indeed ready, the fatted calves were prepared for the feast. Some ignored the invitation, others went on to their businesses or farms. Still, others took the servants and killed them. The King was enraged and destroyed the murderers and their city. He declared the feast was ready but that those who were invited were no longer worthy to come. He told his servants to invite anyone they could find. The hall was filled with the good and the bad. And yet when he saw someone who was not dressed in a wedding garment and and was silent when questioned about it, the servants were instructed to throw him out. Jesus ended this story with “Many are invited, but few are chosen”

In this story, it is important that we realize embracing the Kingdom of God is not only being invited into God’s grace, it is actually showing up for the celebration…in God’s time. It is so easy to become so involved in our daily comings and goings that we have no time for God. That is just unacceptable. God’s time is just that…God’s time. We are here at His pleasure, not ours. We need to be ready, in the appropriate garb, at all times. So what does that actually mean?

When Jesus says “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is Gods,” I think he is making a clear distinction of what belongs to a worldly view and what belongs to a Godly one. These stories help illustrate what belongs to God. In the first, it is clear that God is the owner of the vineyard…and we are only tenants. When God asks us for our talents, we don’t have the right to say no. He rejects the idea that the tenants have no obligation to give back. The selfishness, insolence and ultimate disrespect by the murder of his son is their undoing. In the second story, when we are called to celebrate at the wedding feast, at his appointed time, he is so put off by the disregard of his invitation that he effectively dis-invites them by burning the city and he opens his doors to anyone who would come, yet still expecting wedding attire…our best selves put forward. I used to be more confused by this parable…how could the invitees act so horribly? I understand it better now. Jesus is the bridegroom, we are already joined to God, by his grace. We should know that every moment of every day we should be celebrating with God. You don’t accept God’s invitation and continue to live on your own time, and on your own terms.Too many people think that being on the right team is all that is what is expected of us, that there is no demand on how we live and carry on in the world, that we can do what we will in the meantime. That is so much bullshit. We come when we are called, every day and in every way.

What belongs to God is sharing the fruits of our labor, and putting all else aside to celebrate the Kingdom when we are called. I can’t help but believe that those who dwell in the muck of this election, by perpetuating the vitriol and pointing the finger of judgement are behaving just like the protagonists of these two parables. Behavior I never thought possible from those who claim to be Christians. I am so tired of it, and I know many of you are too. Giving to Caesar is nothing more that the price of living in a human created construct. Giving to God is a declaration and expression of what is expected of us when we accept God’s invitation and all the gifts He has shared with us. So lets embrace each other as God’s people and celebrate all we have been gifted with and put our best selves forward as if we were celebrating at a great wedding feast everyday…and worry less about Caesar.




Stripping the Light


The first thing that popped into my head on the day of the Orlando shooting? This was a tortured man, most probably gay, who lived within a culture who condemned who he was with such ferocity that he grew to hate those who freely and joyfully embraced who they were, so he took their light in one horrible action. Then, in a last ditch effort to cover up who he really was, claimed to be a martyr for the religious extremists who condemned him in the first place. As more information came out, I feel, sadly that my assessment was correct. Since then, beyond the empathy I feel for the LGBT community, the deep sadness that comes with yet another mass shooting, and the anger for those who are using this tragedy for their own agendas…I am, yet again, standing on the precipice of a darkness that wants to swallow us whole.

You see the thing about true darkness is that we seem to be convinced that it must be fought against with guns blazing. We seem to be convinced that it can win. Darkness is dissipated by light, by love. Jesus lays it out clearly:

No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand so that those who enter might see the light. The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness. If your whole body is full of light, and not part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness.

So how does the light in you become darkness? How about when you are told that who you are is a sin? When you are dismissed as unimportant and ostracized by a world that is obsessed with external perfection? Or when you are taught that you are of a special group and that unless you conform, you are condemned. Or when you believe lies that are perpetuated to feed the fury of fear. Jesus has an answer to that too, in what happened directly after his lesson on light:

After he had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, ‘Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you’

Give alms, meaning give charitably to others, whether it be materially or providing capabilities (like education). What cleans one’s inside is extending one’s light out to others. Nothing more. Just simple charity. And when the scholars of the law twist it into depriving you of your God given light? They doom you to darkness, a darkness that will spread to others by continuing the distortion of the law, ending in the death of the light. We see it played out in suicide and murder. Too many, everyday…when all we are asked to do is love the Lord with all our hearts, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. When you are taught to hate yourself, you cannot fulfill this fundamental premise of our faith. When you are taught to hate others, you serve the darkness.

He exposes these scholars for their hypocrisy and ends with this telling phrase:

You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter, and you stopped those trying to enter.

And what that key is, is that each of us is a light, each with a specific purpose and God given gifts to fulfill that purpose. When we subscribe to the belief that any light is not of God, and in any way large or small snuff out that light, darkness spreads. When Jesus died, and sacrificed himself for our transgressions, the key to everlasting life was given to us. The Kingdom of God, though, is within. And it cannot house fear, or hatred, condemnation, or doubt. So here I stand on the precipice of darkness and allow my light to shine, and pray that others will come to stand with me, trusting and celebrating their own light will do the same.

A Model to Follow

flagThis Memorial weekend I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sacrifice. To all the veteran’s out there, I thank you and words cannot express the deep gratitude I feel for your service. We are able to continue our great American Experiment due, in large part, to the great sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. I believe most Americans, regardless of which side of the fence they sit on, honor you for that. Regardless of the lowlifes out there who capitalize on this weekend to breed ever more hatred for their opponents, claiming “ownership” of being a real and true American, I believe all Americans shine with pride on this day for our brave men and women of the military. It does a disservice to politicize it…even if you are in uniform, you are not sacrosanct to vilify your fellow citizens either. No one gets a free pass to condemn anyone. It defeats the purpose of the sacrifice, which is to maintain freedom for all. I tread carefully here, because while I will never undervalue those who fought in war, there are also other ways to fight, to lead, to serve, to evolve our country into something even better that demanded the sacrifice of life too. Their sacrifices are no less valuable and I honor them on this weekend too.

While I have not served in the military, I have spent my life in service. The model I have used was the core to my vocation, from the Gospel of John 13:12-15:

So when Jesus washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at the table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” You call me “teacher” and “master,” and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master and nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.

Throughout all my life though, as my understanding grew, this model Jesus set for us is so much more than humbling oneself to wash another’s feet. It is how we must look at each other…the master equals the servant. In one simple motion, Jesus disassembles one of the most embedded notions of cultural  hierarchy, that there are those who deserve privilege and others who don’t…and says that we are all the same, no one is better than the other. No amount of societal consequence, propriety, adulation or even condemnation can make any set of eyes looking into mine any greater or lesser. I can honor their gifts or challenge their flaws without placing them above or below my gaze.

So when I celebrate this day, I do so not only for those who have sacrificed their lives, but to honor that sacrifice by holding myself to the highest standard for what a real American looks like: a beacon to the rest of the world, while acknowledging my power as a citizen of the most powerful country in the world, I embrace the model that Jesus set for me, not lording over, or looking down on, but helping others to rise up to their greatest potential. Our greatness depends on an America committed to building the strengths of its citizens and on leaders who are not kings, but who model the example of humility and service and return our gaze with equality and respect.