Category Archives: personal

Being God Together

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, May 17, 2015

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
John 17:6-19

Most of you will have gotten a letter from me this week letting you know that I am following a call to go back to school this fall, and moving to California. I will be with you through the beginning of August, and then I’m switching gears to return to full-time theological study. This is one of those momentous decisions that feels, to me, on par with choosing the twelfth apostle – although I guess it’s not quite as significant for Christianity as a whole.

But certainly we as a church are in a transitional moment now, just as the disciples were in these two moments on the eve of Jesus’ death, and then on the eve of Pentecost. And what they model and pray for us in times like these is an attitude of prayer, and of unity in God.

We as a congregation are in a season of transition, not just of leadership but also of your own identity and focus. A generous monetary gift might be the springboard for some of this discernment and refocusing, but the questions we’re asking in these times about who we are and what we value are bigger than simply deciding what to do with a chunk of money, even a very large one. In this changing cultural landscape, where churches simply don’t take on the same role they have in previous decades, individual churches like ours are faced with something of an identity crisis, right along with the big-C Church as a whole.

This week the Pew Research Center released their 2014 religious landscape study, confirming what many of us had probably suspected: the numbers of people in the US identifying with any Christian faith have dropped sharply even since their previous study in 2007. Our world is changing, rapidly, and we are not sure what to do about it. We are anxious, we are confused, we are scared – because the world we knew has changed, and we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to act in this new world.

I think the apostles, Jesus’ closest friends, might know something about that.

In our reading from John, Jesus is about to be arrested and killed, and he is saying his long and drawn-out goodbyes around the dinner table. In the reading from Acts, Jesus has been resurrected and then ascended back to heaven and left them again. The disciples are a bit at loose ends because Jesus is gone and the Holy Spirit has not yet come with a hope for new things and a new mission to send them out with.

So they decide to have an election. Because that’s productive, right? Or at least it’s familiar.

Jesus had come and shook up the world they knew – upset everything they had known and taught them a whole new way of existing in the world. And now he’s gone again! So now what are we supposed to do?? Do we go back to the world we knew, before everything changed, and just try to hold on tight while everything changes around us? Do we pretend the world hasn’t changed, and just do what we’ve always done?

Or can we trust that the Holy Spirit is coming and will lead us into something new?

* * *

In the midst of all that uncertainty, the disciples gathered to pray. Which is a great start! But look at the contents of their prayer – instead of asking, “Okay, God, what next? What should we be doing now?” their prayer is shaped entirely by the assumptions that they’re bringing. It becomes, “Okay God, we need to replace Judas as an apostle, and here are the criteria we’ve set out, and there are two of us who meet those criteria. Can you help us pick one of these two men?”

That’s a very different sort of prayer. They were only listening for one very particular word from God, one predetermined direction, rather than being open to the possibility that God might lead them somewhere entirely new. And it’s hard to say whether Matthias was the right choice for the twelfth apostle, because neither he nor Justus appear again anywhere in the scriptures.

I wonder if God cared as much as they did about filling that twelfth chair at the table. It’s hard to say, because no one stopped to ask – or at least no one bothered to write that part down.

So as we start to consider our own transition, in leadership as well as in the bigger picture of what our mission might be in this new world, perhaps one lesson we might take from this text is the challenge to be open to new possibilities. Maybe the comfortable default answers used to be, okay, we’ll hire a new full-time pastor and we’ll stick all this money in the bank. And maybe that is what God wants for us in this moment amidst a rapidly-changing cultural landscape, and maybe it’s not.

Our challenge is to recognize the times when God is leading us, and when it is we’ve already decided where we want to go and we’re just tacking on God’s name at the end like an ecclesial seal of approval. We’ve already seen over the past 3 years that the old familiar model of one full-time pastor is not the only one for this community. This model of shared leadership has been a great and life-giving one, and yet I think trying to run out and just find another young pastor to slot in to this Associate Pastor role is not necessarily the right answer either.

I’d suggest, instead, that what we need to do is to let the transition be uncomfortable and strange for a minute. And I don’t just mean our particular leadership transition – I mean also the shift in culture around us and the change in our place in the world. Our world has changed, and will continue to change. Trying to deny that won’t help, and trying to act in all the old familiar ways isn’t going to work anymore. The world around us is just different than the world we once knew; as dramatically as the disciples’ world was different before Jesus died and after.

Their world after Easter would never be the same again – and yet for them to long for the good old days when Jesus was alive would completely miss the point.

* * *

Our scriptures are full of stories of God defying humanity’s expectations. We like sameness and familiarity, and yet God insists on changing things and making us new.

Jesus knew before he died that his disciples would be sent into a turmoil. And his prayer on their behalf is a prayer for their protection; he asks God, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” He does not ask for their comfort or their security, that they might have resources for the future, but he asks for God’s protection and the people’s unity.

And this, then, is our reassurance in the times of change and uncertainty: looking for God’s presence with us, and being in relationship with one another as closely as Jesus is with his Father, our Creator. The promise is not that our lives will be easy or stable as followers of Christ – far from it. But our comfort and our challenge is being with God and truly one with each other. As close, as mysteriously one-yet-different as are the beings of God and Jesus, this is how Jesus prays we might relate to one another, all the believers and all those who might come to believe.

In this strange union, we know God as we know each other. We can seek God’s will for us, and we come to know God better as we draw closer together in Jesus. Our way forward is always in God, and somehow we find God in our being together.

Friends, in all the change and excitement and anxiety that the next year or so will hold for us, however the particular faces change, let us be together in God, in prayer, and in fellowship with one another. Because in that we will know God.

Amen.

Going West

Yesterday, I mailed this letter to my congregation. It’s time for a new chapter!!

Dear friends,

My time with you began as an experiment — a new staffing arrangement for a new era of life at Head of Christiana. First I was a guest preacher, then nearly a year as Outreach Associate, and then we set out a two-year contract for my position as Associate Pastor, which will conclude this August.

And what a time it has been! Together we have been through Vacation Bible Schools, worship services both familiar and new, Theology on Tap meetings, Girl Scout Sundays, congregational discernment times, bible studies, baptisms, funerals, weddings, harp concerts, an expanded choir, and so much more.

I have also grown a great deal during our time together. I have been blessed in my experience preaching and leading worship with you, stretched and strengthened in efforts at community outreach, continually challenged with improvement in administrative areas, and always moved by the ways you have let me into your lives and welcomed my pastoral presence in difficult times.

The time has come for me to grow in a new direction: I have accepted admission to the doctoral program in Systematic Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and will begin there as a Ph.D. student this fall. My last Sunday with you will be August 2, and I will use a few days of study leave and my remaining vacation days as I relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area and begin this new chapter.

I am not finished with pastoral ministry, but it has become clear to me that my calling exists somewhere in the intersection of the church as it has been with the articulation (and then practice) of what it means to believe in the contemporary world. Head of Christiana has been an invaluable place for me to begin formal ministry, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in this unique community and get to know you, the devoted and talented people of God who have called this place home.

As with many transitions, mixed emotions seem only natural at this time! Every beginning is also an ending, and I will miss you deeply. But for now, I will remain a member of New Castle Presbytery, and will be very glad to see Head of Christiana’s continued growth and vibrant community spirit from afar.

Thank you so much for all you have meant to me! From the bottom of my heart, may Christ’s peace be with you.

Love,
Kate LeFranc

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The Rev. Bruise K. Almighty

Some recent posts of mine have caused a bit of controversy in my congregation.  In one case it was my use of a particular word, and in the other it was my reference to some past sentiments in the church as “dying” and “forgotten,” in order to illustrate the present reality which feels much more hopeful.

I’ve edited the first, now, because the one word doesn’t feel worth the trouble.  [Y’all know you can curse in front of me if you need to, right?]  And these particular issues feel like they’re really pointing to something larger.

I think the root of this difficulty is the tension between the world of the established, institutional church, and the world outside it.  However you want to characterize it, there is obviously a significant cultural disconnect for congregations across the country, otherwise the church as a whole would not be in the sort of crisis where we find ourselves.

I have one foot in each of these worlds.  I was raised in the church, nurtured in the church, and the church is in my bones.  At the same time, I was not discouraged from being part of the wider world.  I am a real person, very much a part of my generation at the oldest edge of the Millennials.

I love my identity as a cultural translator, a bridge between worlds.  But it is not always an easy place to be.

Most obviously, in my two jobs as parish pastor and campus pastor, I have had to carve out on the fly what I look like and how I speak in each of those roles.  They are similar, often, but distinctly different because each group has different needs and comfort levels and expectations.  Then throw in who I am with my colleagues and friends, and then who I am in roller derby, and the picture gets more and more complicated.

Each of these identities is still me.  I strive to be true to myself in whatever role, and I really value the multiplicity of my identity.  I have thought a lot about cultivating my image in different contexts, and I’ve learned some invaluable things that help me to dress intentionally for each different role.  Even if that does mean a lot of costume changes.

I am at the meeting place of the culture clash between mainline church folks and young adults, and in some ways my very identity is emblematic of the changes that are taking place.  For many people, I am not what a pastor looks like.  I am young (in church terms), I am female-bodied, I have tattoos, I am bisexual, I am honest about my own struggles and my own humanity, I am passionate about justice issues and not afraid of shaking up the powers that be — although I’d argue that last one is exactly what a pastor looks like, or at least they should.

And I’m realizing that this very reality is powerful for people who are not served by the church as it is, or the way they perceive the church to be.  For people who have seen the church as disconnected from the modern, “real” world, I am proof this reality is changing.  People who have said to me, I don’t really go to church but I’d love to hear you speak sometime.

But that same disjuncture – where for some people it is a positive thing that I don’t look like a pastor – presents some difficulties when you’re looking from the other side.  Because I don’t look like a pastor.

And there’s nothing I can say that will smooth out that tension, because that is the present reality of the church in the modern world.  And that is the reality of my self and the unique ministry to which I am called, somehow bridging this irreconcilable divide.

So I invite you to be here with me in this tension.  If the mainline church and the modern world are going to have anything to say to one another, we will somehow have to face these places where our cultures clash and our expectations have to shift, from both sides.

Or, you know, we won’t.  But I have to have faith that we can.

Banksy - Stained Window

Fighting my demons

All these stories in the bible about demon-possession, casting out spirits and all that – that’s got to be just some kind of quaint historical relic, a product of a pre-scientific worldview that had no other way to explain disease, or why bad stuff happens.

Except, I’ve got one.  There’s really no other way to describe it.  If God is life and love and wholeness and beauty, then the thing in my head that is spouting despair and anxiety and aloneness is most definitely Not-God, and it’s not quite me either.

I got myself out of my house this evening, because sitting here feeling guilty/depressed/useless about the work I wasn’t getting done was not terribly effective, and I made it to the weird little franchise cafe whose main appeal is that it’s a block away from my house, and I continued reading Pastrix.

There’s one chapter where she talks about putting together a renaming service for a trans guy in her congregation, on the same Sunday when she’s preaching on Jesus’ baptism.  And immediately after the baptism, in the text, Jesus is tempted by demons.  Immediately after the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  And to that she says, “Only God can tell us who we are.  Anything else is temptation.”  Anything else that tries to tell us who we are, or who we’re supposed to be, is a demon.  Anything that makes us doubt that we are children of God.

So I’ve got a demon, and I have decided to fight it with all I’ve got.  It feels oddly appropriate to take this Bi Pride Day to come out, again: I have bipolar.

And I’ve been struggling, and lonely, and not liking living in Delaware, and having good days and bad ones, and sometimes crying in front of people I’m really not ready to cry in front of.  And medication has been helping, but not always, and not enough.

And I have decided today – no, remembered today – that this is not who I am.

Who I am is someone who sees both the incredible beauty in the world, and the incredible brokenness, and chooses beauty anyway.  I am kind of socially awkward but I will be your friend anyway.  I have terrible balance, but I’m going to do roller derby anyway.  Churches are dying but I’m going to be a pastor anyway.

I’ve never been one to let anyone else tell me what I can’t do.  And so, to the demon telling me I can’t be happy, I say NO.  Because f–k it, I am a child of God and I am better than that.

What is faith, anyway, except the irrational insistence that all this crap is not the final word – the bull-headed stubbornness that sings resurrection when everyone else is screaming despair.  And I am choosing resurrection.  I am choosing not-death.

I am Bruise Almighty, fighter of demons.