At 31, you are the youngest speaker this year. What would you like your elders to understand about your generation? What are you most curious to learn about those who paved your way?
At 31, I belong to the Millennial Generation. We thrive in fast-paced, tech-heavy environments. We struggle with short attention spans, consumerism and over-exposure. And- every church I know wants more of us. Churches constantly try to appeal to my generation with gimmicks, shallow theology and rock bands. Churches believe they need more Millennials. I believe: we need each other. The Church needs young, fast-paced, energetic leaders who can start the church twitter account and preach the good news of acceptance, grace, and open doors. We can bring new eyes to both Church sanctuaries and Christ’s parables that might enliven our faith exploration in The Church. But as a Millennial, the biggest gift the church has given me came in the form of touch. Real touch. When a man shot crowds of people in Aurora, CO two summers ago, I needed to turn off the constant commentary and catastrophizing on the news. I needed to experience the touch of the quiet, holy space of a prayer room. I longed for the timeless sacred walls to wrap around me and give me a place to weep, to pray and to just be. When Millennials engage in friendly, yet fierce digital competitions of showcasing our prestigious jobs, or picture perfect children, fairytale weddings, or beautiful McMansion homes—I need the church to show me images of the kingdom: people old and young, vulnerable, struggling, humble and collaborative. Inside the Church doors- the artificial ‘competitions’ fade away and I get to sing the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” with my fellow seeking, broken, evolving, willing, and raw brothers and sisters in Christ. This is how the church touches me. Millennials might help the church stay relevant and prophetic and global… but for me- one Millennial seeking wholeness in this fragmented world- I love the Church Touch. The church helps me step outside of the instant, distant, technologically clogged world of the Millennials. But more than this- at its best- the church reaches in, past my cheerful facebook posts and guarded tweets, past my fast paced façade and ambitious tendencies- and the Church touches my spirit. Yes, the church needs us Millennials. But I know, deep down, I need the church touch.
Who have been the important role models in your life? How have they shaped you?
Every woman minister I met before I answered my own call to ministry inspires me. I met my first female minister in a hospital room. I was five, and I was recovering from a broken arm. This compassionate Catholic nun came to me every day as I recovered. She put me at ease. After weeks of admiring her and learning from her, one day I asked: “mom, how much do nuns make?” My family still laughs about that question. It wasn’t quite a call to ministry, but, it was the moment I started wondering about the worth of ministry. I admired this woman’s transformative work of loving, listening, and bearing witness to those who are hurting. Since meeting that nun, I have witnessed the ministry of other bold women pastors who lead churches, who minister in hospitals, and those who shape important conversations about theology. I pay attention to the work of the Rev. Anne Howard, executive director of the Beatitudes Society; Rachel Held Evans, evangelical blogger and author; Nadia Bolz-Weber, author; Anne Lamott, author; Barbara Brown Taylor, preacher and author… just to name a few. I invest in mentor relationships and my mentors serve as role models for me. The most influential mentor in my life right now is the Rev. Johnny Wray, interim director of Week of Compassion. He lives a life of integrity and balance. He courageously proclaims the gospel from a social justice perspective. From him, I learn about the importance of relationships, grassroots change, and being true to who I am. The most generous gift he gives me is his time. I often seek his wisdom and insight about my ministry choices and wrestlings. In mentors past, present and future, I value the opportunity to partner in my ministry- in dialogue with my role models and mentors- because I believe our best work springs up collaboratively.
Of all the figures in the Bible, with whom would you wish to spend a day, and what would you hope to learn?
When I studied at Harvard I worked under theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. She is a co-founder of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the author of numerous books on feminist theology and she serves as the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Elisabeth invites her students to explore the untold stories of the scriptures. In one of her early books In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins she urges all of us to reclaim the influence of women in the early church. In her classes, she encouraged us to look beyond the power and politics of the biblical cannon and use a hermeneutic of imagination to explore the lives and voices of minor figures in the Bible. Because of Elisabeth’s influence in my own faith journey, I would spend a day with a collective of biblical women to learn more about their dreams, their visions, their convictions, and their role in shaping the movement of Jesus Christ. Most of these women are unnamed, but I imagine if I first began speaking with Mary and Martha… soon, I would begin to meet other women who were fed in the crowd of 5,000 in Luke 9, then, I might meet some women who were part of the 72 disciples sent out to teach and preach in Luke 10… I would want to spend my day hearing the untold stories, the voices of women without political power and yet filled with spiritual wisdom and depth.
What books have most shaped your thinking? What are you reading now?
I love reading memoirs. I enjoy hearing about the lives and journeys of other people as they remember it. I love the book Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and Dakota by Kathleen Norris. I learned so much from Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope by Shirin Ebadi. I read her memoir after 9/11 to increase my awareness and insight into faithful Islamic peace leaders in the midst of such racial profiling and stereotyping against our Muslim brothers and sisters. Ebadi’s memoir led me to read other memoirs by Muslim leaders and activists- including: A Border Passage by my Harvard professor Lela Ahmed, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi. I often read memoirs by people of faith who beautifully blend the mundane and the sacred into testimonies about God, grace and hope. In my opinion, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor achieves this flawlessly. Finally, I love to read memoirs from women who have broken the glass ceiling like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice by Mary Robinson. I just started reading Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, I believe it will become a new favorite.
What in your view is the greatest challenge facing people of faith today?
I believe the greatest challenge of faithful people today is seeking an image of God that transcends images of ourselves. Anne Lamott says it beautifully: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I think we tend to put God in a small, manageable box that we can easily access and understand. In an age where we can instantly gratify our own desires through online shopping, quick internet fact searches, and on-demand anything- how can we give ourselves permission to wait patiently for God’s still, small voice? How can we live in the unsettled place of mystery? How can we become comfortable with not knowing all the answers, and allowing wonder and awe to guide our faith journey? When we admit that we do not know everything about God and God’s desires and visions for us, then we can begin to show more curiosity and compassion for our neighbors. We can begin to love and accept and explore the image of God in ‘the other’- or, the person who makes us uncomfortable. I believe we are more disconnected than ever today. We are disconnected with the farmers who harvest our food; we are disconnected from our ‘enemies’ through the development of drone strikes; we are disconnected from people of other cultures, religions, and sexual orientations. We have less intergenerational interaction. We have less socio-economic mingling in our schools, churches, and neighborhoods. What if we saw our faith journey through the lens of exploration and discovery? What if God calls us to reach beyond what is comfortable and invest in what is beyond us, both spiritually and culturally? To me, the greatest challenge for people of faith today is to admit that we do not have all the answers. Once we make that confession, I believe God’s transformation might begin in each of us as we continue to question and quest for God’s presence and vision for the world.