Saturday, August 31, 2013

Nothing Is Wasted (Vegetable Version)

Here we are, at the end of August, and another summer has gone screaming by. The wind blew tonight, and thunder shook the house as the calendar turns us back to school and schedules and cooler weather and the approach of a darker, slower time.


My schedule stayed relatively clear this weekend (for me, the weekend comes to an end in these next few moments, as Saturday becomes Sunday and the most important day of the week amps up for me). Yesterday, I managed to get all of the laundry done, which is no small feat. I cooked and cleaned and enjoyed the open, empty and quiet space of our home. That is sabbath for me, the refuge and the slow movements from one room to another.

No running, no rushing, no deadlines. There is rest for me in that kind of openness.

The vegetables I roasted yesterday, the bounty of peppers and tomatoes scattered on the stainless steel table at the church with a, "Come and get 'em!" invitation; the eggplant, which rode up I-95 with my parents on an adventure out of my Aunt Barbara's garden into my kitchen; the local squash... All combined and cooked to be absolutely delicious the first time out of the over, around midday yesterday. However, upon reheating and serving four hours later, what was firm was less so, and what was delicious became something less palatable.

Mushy. Not worth eating. Past it's prime.

But nothing is wasted, you know; I have learned that in life and I am beginning to understand it better in the kitchen. So tonight, what went from perfect and fresh to mushy and tired was granted new life. Soggy veggies became a puree, a base for soup laced with fresh spinach and cilantro, a kick of chili powder and a pinch of curry.

All things new, y'all. Works all over the place.

Never forget the power of a second chance and a bit of creative energy.

I sent the above photo to my eldest daughter, the creative master of the kitchen, encouraging her to BE PROUD OF YOUR MOTHER. It's pretty amazing, to be at this juncture in life where I am inspired by my offspring. It happens all the time.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

On Having A House Guest

I recently read a novel in which the protagonist was described, in great detail, as one who thrived on the chaos and clamor of a house full of family and friends. Her doors were always open; extra places were always set at the table, and extra rooms - or couches - were always occupied by friends, family members or folks who simply needed a place to crash.

You could always find her in the kitchen; she held court there, preparing food, engaging in conversation and keeping things organized.

I can relate. It sounds VERY familiar! Seems like we always have a houseful of people, and I like it.

As the story progressed, she murdered two people and was eventually diagnosed with a severe narcissistic personality disorder, which provided the impetus behind what appeared to be hospitality. Her neuroses fed off the chaos, the appearance of meeting all the needs of all those people. She wasn't well.

(Remember, I said it was a novel...)

It gave me pause. As my kids grow up and move on to different callings, the dynamic of our family changes. I'm changing, too. But I still love having a houseful of people - even though, as evidenced by my INFP Meyers-Briggs profile and this little list, I'm pretty much an introvert. The fact that I strongly dislike big parties and events and meet-and-greets but love having a houseful of people (occasionally) reflects something indicative of my personality, I suppose. And my passion for my family. But narcissism? Yikes!

I could do some serious navel-gazing here, but I'm not inclined; and I doubt it would be very interesting. So, instead, there is this, related very much in context.

My eldest daughter, who lives in Savannah, has a Significant Other - who lives with us. Post college, his work led him to this area temporarily, and we invited him to stay here with us (of course we did!) He had space in the basement, but now that the other girls have returned to college and their room opened up, he moved upstairs.

Today was chore day, and it included reorganizing his new space. I washed sheets, and this evening I went back in that bedroom to finish the beds. He'd organized a few things; there are now manly shoes and boots lined up right underneath the very girly collection of prom dresses in the closet, along with a few books and scattered personal items.

I walked by the dresser next to the bed, and I couldn't help but stop for a minute. There was some of his artwork, his glasses, his Bible and a journal...and a photograph.

A photograph of my daughter in the private effects of my house guest.
I'm not sure there are adequate words to describe what it's like to have the great privilege of an inside look at the serious affection of a young man toward my daughter. I am watching Travis and Shannon as their engagement unfolds, and it is special and unique and beautiful, for sure. But this is a tad bit different, and a little backwards. If there are words, I can't find them. But I can say this: Opening our home to this young man has been an incredible privilege. Standing on his own, he is an asset to our daily life; a strong and healthy influence on my sons, a joy to have around the house, with an occasional dose of nice banjo music.

Knowing that his heart is warmed by the girl that I watched bloom into a beautiful young woman...well, it feeds my soul.

In a good way.

I am thankful.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's Just Not That Hard

One of the best parts of my job is the creative, create-something-out-of-nothing teamwork that undergirds a lot of what we do. I'm currently tasked with helping get small groups geared up for fall, and one of my tasks was to find a creative way to show that putting together a group is just not that hard.

Our team created a vague storyboard idea. We pitched it to a creative guy who wrote out a script. The script morphed into a different sort of dialogue, due to the restrictions of casting and a tight shooting schedule.

The filmmaker - a professional - volunteers his time and energy and indulges our every whim. His editing skills are genius.

And the actors? In this case, my friends. And my family. Good sports, every one.

Here's what we came up with; special appearances by my husband, my daughter, and my mother-in-law.

I love my job.

pcc smallgroup1 640x360 from Beth Brawley on Vimeo.

By the way - if you're interested in hosting a small group, we are looking for a few more. Give me a shout at beth {at} pccwired {dot} net and I'll fill you in.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I'm The Minister

I grew up in the Methodist church; meaning that I was in church in the spiritual sense, thanks to what I learned and experienced in the two churches of my childhood (First Methodist, Franklin, PA and Inglewood Methodist, Grand Prairie, TX), and in the more literal sense, in that I was at church pretty much every week.

Participation in the music ministry was a regular thing for me; I sang in the choir, played piano occasionally, and grew up among the robed, mature women who met every Wednesday to sightread Christian anthems. It was fundamental to my growth as a musician, and I matured as an individual, thanks to the influence of women like Shirley and Stephanie Johnson and Cherie Baker.

It was a good, grounding weekly habit for me during my adolescence; one that I abandoned during my college years, but the resonance remained strong. My roots are sure, thanks to the fact that I was in church. I am grateful to my parents, for when I was drawn back to faith in my desire for a philosophical and spiritual understanding of life, the foundational truths I had learned about religion and people served me well.

As a teenager in the Methodist church, "Youth Sunday" was a yearly tradition. The teens organized the entire service. I did music throughout the year, but Youth Sunday gave us a little more freedom. Just a year or two ago, while pawing through some old scrapbooks, I found the program from Youth Sunday at Inglewood Methodist Church, circa 1981.

I was the preacher.

I can't remember what it was - in fact, I can't remember the experience at all. But I've got proof; I did it, at the age of seventeen - I preached my first sermon.

Today, I had a remarkable experience - a new one for me - and I couldn't help but think back to that little blip on my resume:
Presented sermon for Youth Sunday, 1981
If you'd asked me back then the likelihood of me being an ordained minister at the age of 50, working vocationally as a pastor, I probably would have scoffed. I had my sights set on other things, and already the siren song of indulgence was calling my name.

But the fascinating road of life wove in and out of logic and reason, music and ministry, intelligence and academics, creativity and family, and here I am. I've been doing "church stuff" for over twenty years now, and ministry has been my vocation and passion almost exclusively (along with teaching those piano lessons that fill me up so well!) for the past eight years. I've revisited the sermon delivery gig; I've led worship in all sorts of venues. I've led teams and prayed at large gatherings. I've played music for funerals and weddings. Most of my work is incredibly rewarding; I get a front-row seat for legitimate, powerful life-change in people who are, like me so many years ago, in search of some answers. I have been invited into to special, sacred moments for individuals and families.

But one thing I'd never done, until today.

I got to say these words:
By the authority given me by the commonwealth of Virginia, and with the blessing of God, I now pronounce you husband and wife.
Never have I been more awestruck by the role and responsibility of the minister. Because I said so, these people are married.

It's incredible, really.

And I'm grateful for the long arc of life, the connective spiritual tissue that ties a seventeen-year-old girl in a Methodist pulpit to a grown woman and mother on a beautiful Virginia afternoon, declaring the word of the Lord. Today was a wedding day for my friends, who are growing a marriage, and a watershed moment for me, as I grow into my self.

So be it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Deconversion And Grace

My blog has been quiet. My deep thoughts have been all up in my head.

It's been a crisis of sorts; in some respects, quite mild. All internal. Yet the implications of movement hint at some life-altering changes.

There's this new word floating around: deconversion.

It's kind of all the rage now, in some camps. It's almost trendy, I'd say; people are coming out of the closet, confessing honestly about who they really are and where they really stand on matters of faith and Christianity and God.

We're in an era of soul-baring; current culture teems with individual declarations revealing hidden things. The Truth. The Real Me. Everybody's asking for acceptance. Everybody stands on equal ground.

Which is a good, good thing, in so many respects. Secrets bind anxiety. I can't imagine the pain of living a lie - no, wait. I can. Been there, done that.

But my tenure in that world was of my own making, and the lines remained clear about right and wrong, whether civil or faith-based. I knew where I stood, and it wasn't on the good side. Coming clean for me meant staying in the light of truth.

So, I confess to some button-pushing when processing the unveiling of newfound authentic lives that include rejection of God. It's scary. It's hard to be objective.

I have friends and acquaintances who do not believe in God - they never have. They're not religious. They are decent people, civic-minded and kind. They do not worship Satan; they just don't worship God. I know people who believe in God but not in Jesus; they are also good, decent people of different faiths.

I've never had issue with these folks whose faith is nonexistent or different than mine. Respect is a virtue, and I strive to give it.

But this new thing (which certainly isn't new, really; now it just has a name and a tribe or two and some broadly open arms), this deconversion; this is different. It's saying, "Once I believed that and now I don't", and the rules and regulations of a commitment to God don't allow for much rejection. And I'll just say it: It's hard to accept. And not in the "Oh my God, what do you mean you no longer believe in Jesus you're going to hell for committing the unpardonable sin?!?!?!!?!?"

It's hard because....well, I don't know. So many reasons.

It's personal. Whether these are blogging friends, favorite authors or personal friends, it's hard to remove the personal impact. Part of the power of Christian faith - in my experience, and in it's history - is the communal connection. Whether it's been good or bad - and it's both; I can't even list how many people I've hurt, unintentionally, by not being a good friend/Christian/pastor - there is a connection that's both intrinsic and acknowledged. When the faith aspect is removed, the person is still there. They hold the same personality traits, the same sense of humor, the same skills and talents - but something foundational in the communal connection changes. My more hardline friends would articulate for a loss of the Holy Spirit, a removal from fellowship, a lack of unity when one denies deity. I struggle with this; I have long believed that those things - the Holy Spirit, the fellowship, the unity - solidified into a connection that was, in a word, supernatural. I give credit to the God in whom I believe. I've experienced these things over and over and over.

I believe them.

I've shared them.

So what happens when someone takes a deep breath and says, "Not me. Don't believe it anymore. Not real." Not just, "I'm not into church." More than, "I don't think Jesus is the only way." 

"God is not real."

What's left?

It's personal, and - I'll be honest - it's threatening, because if someone I respect can choose to simply not believe anymore, it comes awfully close to home. Like, there's this little voice in my head that says, "You know, you get to choose, could look this way, at the inconsistencies and the lack of evidence and the science and all the awful things done in the name of God and you could add it all up the same way. You could change your mind...."

And that's it, I think; that's the thing. People I know and love and respect are changing their minds about this one thing that has, foundationally, been my truth. This thing that has bound us together. They examine whatever evidence is at hand, search their hearts and decide to walk away. And that's scary.

There's an intellectual implication, and I want to be counted among the smart ones in the room, so there's that. If the smart people are all deconverting, it makes me nervous. I'm sorry to admit it, but it's the truth, because I'm supposed to be one of the smart ones.

It implies that there is a right and a wrong, and no matter how you slice it, there's one of us on each side. A favorite blogger wrote something like, "I don't judge you for your beliefs; it's fine that you still believe. I'm not going to try to deconvert you." But it's not so fine, really; rejection and deconversion are a pretty powerful declaration that this thing you believe, that I used to believe, is not true. And the thing about God - at least in my Christian paradigm - is that He is for everyone. He loves everyone, offers salvation for all. That's where I get hung up, I think; how can someone turn away from their faith and say, "It's okay for you - just not right for me. I'm the same person! No, really!" and not have that choice reflect a judgement call on God for all?

Sigh. It's hard, and it's complicated. It's forced me, in these last months, to examine the evidence at hand, search my own heart and decide.

I'm not walking away. I have been stumbling, and crawling and crying. I've been stuck.

I've been examining not only my faith and my core beliefs and my worldview, but also my role in personal relationships - in or out of shared faith.

If anything, I'm more educated. I've studied more, I have wrestled more, I have asked more questions and I've lived in some dark moments. There have been moments, I'll confess, in which I've felt that I had no choice. I mean, really; consider my position. I'm a pastor.

But here's the deal: I do have a choice. And so do my friends and acquaintances and the far-off artists and writers and singers and bloggers who are choosing.

I get to choose, just like the rest of us. I chose to get on this road many years ago, and it has been littered with crap and filled with joy. I choose again, every morning when I awake.

And what follows will sound simplistic and trite and very much like Stuff Christians Say, but it's the truth: I choose to follow Jesus. I have to choose.

I choose to invest my life in a church - a gathering of people doing the best they can with what they've got - that can strive to change perceptions, lean into authenticity and love instead of judge. Help to paint a clearer picture of a God of love and restoration.  If authenticity means saying, "I no longer believe in your God", I get to choose what it looks like to be compassionate, to refrain from judgement or condemnation, to leave to God the things that only He can do.

I choose - though it is so difficult - to not allow the choices of others to devalue my own choice.

I choose, and then I drop the ball and screw it up and get all up in my head and I get to choose again. And again. And again. And I get more clarity.

One of my biggest inspirations lately has been a friend who has every reason to reject God - and especially to reject the church, whose people have judged and condemned her. Literally. She is a Christian. She loves another woman, and she has been honest and open about her choice. My statement here is not about whether homosexuality is right or wrong in God's eyes; it is simply to say that I have watched her choose Jesus, time after time, even though it would be far easier and much less painful to abandon God and the church and walk - free of pain - in a community without strings attached, free of religious entanglements. She chooses to keep wrestling with God - for her own sake, not politics or hidden agendas. She simply believes in and loves God. And I watch and think, she has every reason to walk away from her faith...and she is stubbornly, passionately, determinedly clinging to God.

Say what you will. I'm inspired by her conviction.

I don't know what to think about deconversion. I don't like it. It makes me sad. I want to respect and love those who make that choice, but that's complicated. I realize it must be difficult; I know it's a decision that doesn't come lightly.

It's complicated, and - deep sigh - the older I get, the more I realize that most of life is just that: COMPLICATED. Wisdom and maturity doesn't make it less so. You wade through the muck and mud and do the best you've got with the ones you love. You try to leave the world a little better than you found it. I believe there is a Creator, and that we can know him. Christianity makes sense out of the it's purest form, it is the greatest hope the world has.

I'm choosing that.
I ended this post, and I'm sitting here struggling with whether or not to hit that 'publish' button. It's very raw, and it feels incredibly risky...mostly because I'm a pastor, and just yesterday I stood on a platform and sang, from the deepest part of my soul, "THERE IS POWER IN THE NAME OF JESUS", and I know that I know that I know that I believe it, but somehow all these words that admit to my wrestling makes me worry that I might somehow invalidate the work that I do, the life that I live... But that's ridiculous, because - like I mentioned earlier in this post - we're in an era of authenticity, and, ironically enough, this is The Real Me. I do struggle and wrestle and wonder. And wander.

But I return. The grace, it is irresistible. The love, the story, the arc of truth, the beauty of a butterfly, the miracle of our bodies. There is nothing else that can tie together the cords of meaning. I return, though truthfully, I never go too far away. 

I believe. Thank God, I believe.