lessons learned: tree houses, slide locks, and the need for control

When I was a around 8 or 9-years-old, my dad and I built a tree house in the forked trunk of a large pine in the back corner of our yard.  It was a simple tree house–several wood blocks used as ladder steps up the side of the tree then a big box structure made from plywood with a green rippled fiberglass roof.  The best thing about it though was the trap door which you pushed open to get inside then could be locked for private “kids only” meetings and such.  My dad had agreed to the lock under the condition that I did not lock any adults out or keep anyone out who asked to come in and play.

That lock taught me many lessons in negotiation, control, power, and surrender.

This morning, as I listened to Dave’s reflection on curious kids and elevated pulpits and vantage points, I remembered a particular story about that old tree house.

On a cool and rainy teacher workday, I planned to go out back and hang out in my home away from home.  I had packed my backpack with some items I would need and set out across the back yard.  Before I reached the swing set midway across, I heard laughter and snickering then a slammed trap door.

And then there it was, the sharp click of a hardware store slide lock.

I immediately recognized the voices as 3 neighborhood boys, my same age, who were usually a part of my neighborhood tribe.  That day, however, they had other plans.

I knew they wouldn’t let me in, but red-faced, I climbed up the steps and knocked on the trap door.  They laughed and shouted, “Boys only!”

In my bossiest voice (or as I refer to it, “the voice of social justice”), I commanded them to let me in.  It was my play house after all.

They shrieked and whooped and jumped up and down.  No matter, I persisted and banged until they got tired of hearing me, and with a click, they opened the trap door just a crack.

There, three faces stared down at me with mischievous eyes and goofy grins.  There was no way I was getting in with those three blocking the entry.  I reminded them matter-of-factly that it was my tree house, and I should be allowed to play.

They looked down on me, then at each other, then down at me.  It was in that moment, I felt the power shift, and boy, was it palpable.  I realized that no matter what I did or said, I would not gain access until they were ready.

And then the tears started as they always do when I’m angry.

At that point, the boys had achieved exactly what they wanted.  They had defeated me.  They slammed the door then began laughing and calling me various names as I moped back to the house.

Needless to say, I ran straight to my mother and explained the situation.  I begged her to come outside.  I knew that if they saw her marching across the back lawn, they’d scramble down or at least unlock the door and let me in.

Nope.  She wasn’t coming. “You need to go work this out on your own,” she suggested and sent me back out the door.

As a child, I felt betrayed.  I’d already tried working it out, and now I needed to bring the heat.  What more could I do.  I needed her adult authority to make this right.

Today, however, as I sat listening to Dave’s message, I realized the two gifts my mom offered me that day:

  1.  I learned how to empower myself to solve the problem, even if it meant doing it with a red face and a few tears.
  2.  I came to appreciate what it felt like on the other side of the power dynamic, what it meant to be the person on the ground, the one locked out, the one excluded.  It hurt.  It was lonely.

It is human nature, I guess, that causes us to desire that kind of control–to be the ones looking down on others rather than elevating them to our position, or better yet, lowering ourselves to theirs. My prayer is that in our lives as local neighbors and global citizens, that we do what we can to shift that power a bit.  To create opportunities for equality.  To surrender our need for control.  To embrace and to want for each other the same sense of community.

To unlock the lock, and make room for one more.


remembering this day

I’m sure many of us recall where we were when we first witnessed or heard the news about the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.  I recall being on vacation with our family, my child’s father turning on the tv right as the plane flew into the 2nd tower.  I turned to block my child as we didn’t realize a national tragedy was occurring right in that very moment.  As I redirected her out of the room, I watched her toddle through the door with her teddy bear–she turned and giggled at me, and I wondered how her life, our lives, the lives of millions of people had changed.

With the most recent refugee crisis occurring, I have continued to wonder where our world is headed.  But with recent stories of countries opening their hearts and borders to new neighbors, I believe there is hope. And as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

This is one of my favorite prayers~

O Lord, take my ears and hear through them

take my hands and use them,

take my lips and speak through them,

take my eyes and smile through them,

take my heart and mind and will,

and use them as lamps of love,

by which your light may shine in all

the darkness of this suffering world.

~Modern prayer, anonymous

Living “In Community” ~ A Sermon

I gave this message at our contemplative Sanctuary service last Sunday, September 6.  It is the 2nd in the 3-part series about the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.  I preached the first sermon on the Natural World (and creation care) a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll post that one soon.  This sermon will always hold a special place in my heart, not only because I was moved by the Holy Spirit to rewrite it at the 11th hour, but also because it is the first time that I noticed almost every parishioner having an “aha” moment.  I’ll never know what those causes to pause were all about, but if they too can be moved by the words of the Holy Spirit as I was, then I know there is hope for change in this world. ~cameron

“What We Name and Claim, Part 2 of the UMC Social Principles” (c) 2015 Cameron Kempson

Yesterday evening, I sat down and wrote a perfectly good sermon for today based on the Social Principles focused on Nurturing and Social communities. It was a good message with a nice metaphor about ladybugs and squash beetles and everyone living together in my garden.

It was well written. It made its point. But it was too easy, too safe.

You see, I remembered the week we’d had in our news. Children washing up on the Turkish shore after two boats of Syrian people seeking refuge capsized in the ocean on their way to Greece. Children washing up on shore in our world this week.

I would never forgive myself if I settled for a sermon with a gardening metaphor when we have people literally dying in the pursuit of simply living in a safe and healthy community.

Last night after my sermon was done, however, this post came my way. It was written yesterday by Glennon Doyle Melton who is also known as Momastery in the world of social media, and I’d like to share a bit with you.

In response to a question whether she would weigh in on Donald Trump and Kim Davis, these were some of her thoughts:

“No. This might sound harsh, so be it- I’ll apologize later. . .

Entering into relief work with the refugees = hard. Complaining about gay people getting married= easy. Stop – choosing the easy thing and pretending that “defending God” is your cross to bear. God didn’t ask you to defend God. God is bigger than you and doesn’t need your protection. But God’s CHILDREN DO NEED YOUR PROTECTION. God’s children are dying for the hope of safety for their families. Shift your energy to them.”

So what does all this have to do with the Nurturing and Social Communities sections of of the United Methodist Social Principles?

Two weeks ago we began with the Natural World and talked about how God calls us to care for creation.

When our Maker invites us into that relationship, creation doesn’t just stop at plants, animals, water, sky and land. It includes us as well.   We are a part of God’s community and what we learn from our Social Principles is that as a human community, we need care and guidance too.

If you will reference the bookmark in your bulletin, you will see the topics listed in each area. As I mentioned in my last sermon, my goal is not to advocate for or interpret any of the particular principles. My desire is to remind us that when we face challenging issues of our day, our Church has a tool for guidance, a tool that is inspired by the biblical preaching of Jesus.

Before we begin, I want you to think of one of your favorite Bible stories or parables. Look at the list on each side of that bookmark. How many of those issues are a part of your story? How many of those issues are a part of the Bible? Regardless of how many years have passed, we have been invited by God to address these concerns, to provide relevant solutions, and to live in community with each other.

When I use the phrase “in community” I consider it to have a different feel than just saying “I live in a community.” When I live in community with people, I am accountable not only to myself but to everyone. Just like we talked about with the Natural World piece, being in community means we see ourselves as merely one part of the collective whole. We are thus called as people of faith not only to contribute to that whole, but also to value and care for those who live in it.

So how do we do that?

Let’s us the five questions on the postcard printed in your bulletin.

What does God want us to do? What does God want me to do?

In turning to scripture for a reference point, I found myself inundated by the list of verses related to– what we are called to do as people of faith living in community with each other. The scripture I chose for today [Romans 12:10-18] lists actions such as:

Be joyful, patient, and faithful.

Practice hospitality.

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.

Do what is right

Live in harmony with one another


We are also taught in Micah 6:8:

What does the Lord require of us?

To seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

In his book, The God We Never Knew, Marcus Borg refers to these expectations for community as the “politics of compassion” (p. 143). In essence, we are called to live in shalom—”a social vision:  the dream of a world in which such well-being belongs to everybody (p. 134).

We are living “in community” when, regardless of philosophical, theological, political or demographic differences, everyone wants the best for everyone else. Everyone upholds the same rights for everyone else. Everyone embraces the same freedoms for everyone else. Everyone meets the same basic needs of everyone else. And everyone– yes everyone — sees God embodied in everyone else.

But we aren’t perfect right? Sometimes, it’s hard to love our neighbor as ourselves, to appreciate values different from ours, to pray for the good of the whole instead of the good of the individual.   American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr appreciated that as humans, we are fallible, and yet, “the fact that we cannot perfectly embody this social vision, this Shalom, does not mean that it should cease to be an ideal” (p. 150 from Marcus Borg’s The God We Never Knew).

If we know what God wants us to do, then who does God want us to be?

God wants us to be the people who look to our lord Jesus Christ and live by his words, his actions, and his light.

Stop for a minute and think about your favorite passages about Jesus or the parables he tells. What are some characteristics he models for us? What was he trying to teach us through is stories? Simply put, in Matthew 22, he commanded us to do two things: Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 40 The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes.

God wants us to be humble, merciful, and most of all, loving.

What does God want us to change?

God wants us to change the way we think, the way we judge, the way we exclude, the way we talk, the way we hate.

God wants us to change the way we ignore, the way we neglect, the way we deny, the way we pretend, the way we give up.

As Christians, we are called to feel, to question, to act, to learn, to welcome, to nurture, to protect, to love.

Our Social Principles teach us in the Preamble to the Nurturing Communities section:

Primary for us is the gospel understanding that all persons are important—because they are human beings created by God and loved through and by Jesus Christ and not because they have merited significance. We therefore support social climates in which human communities are maintained and strengthened for the sake of all persons and their growth.

That is who God wants us to be. That is what God wants us to do.

Nelson Mandela once said: You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself. . .Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but also humility.

What are you willing to change about yourself to live out God’s call for community?

Finally, what is God’s vision for our future?

As I sat in my writing chair last night, I meditated on this question for quite some time. My hope was that God’s vision for our future included more light and love than we as God’s people are willing to offer in this day and time. Some days when the news and social media bring me images of war, violence, death, and poverty, I grow weary wondering if it will ever change, and how can I — as one person of faith — be a part of that change.

But I refuse to become apathetic or overwhelmed or neglectful. Because for every story like the children from Syria, there is one person or one community who is impassioned to write a new ending, like Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir.

Concerned by the struggles of refugees, this Icelandic author and professor sent out a plea on Facebook to her community. Now, residents of Iceland are committed to hosting 50 refugee families in their own homes, and with contributions by other families for food and clothing, Bjorgvinsdottir is hopeful that they will be able to support maybe 50-100 more.

What would compel someone to start this small but relevant revolution?

A post on her Facebook page says, “Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, and the television host. People who we’ll – never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.'”

That is what we are called to as people of faith. That is how we bring about God’s vision for our future.   That is how we live — in community.

lessons learned: tomato cages and friendship

The past couple of months, I have experienced the unconditional care and support of friends.  Sometimes, if you are lucky, you find people who take you as you are. I consider it “grace” when they experience it all, love on you, and accept you in all your brokenness anyway.

I am reminded of this meditation from 3 summers ago and wanted to repost it as an expression of gratitude.  ~cameron

Last night, a handful of us headed over to the community garden at our church. You see, our woman’s group decided to become the seed planters, literally and figuratively speaking, for a new ministry with and in the community.  It is a “baby step” project with commitment, faith, and dreams that will carry it beyond this first year of poor soil, weeds and groundhogs.

My goal last night was to create chicken wire cages to prop up the tomato plants heavy with fruit.  You see, we’ve had rain the last few days, and if you know anything about tomatoes, all that water creates food filled with juice.  Between Saturday and yesterday, the plants appeared to be heavy in mind, body and spirit calling out to me, “Help!”tomatoes SUMC

I was the first to arrive and began working on the project on my own, and not so effectively I might add.  If you’ve never unrolled chicken wire, it can be a doozie to keep straight without the help of another person.  That statement doesn’t even capture what it’s like to cut it in pieces.  They snap off, flying every whicha way so that my legs this morning look as if our cat used my body for her scratching post.

After a bit, however, a friend arrived.  Yay!  In no time, we were working together to unroll, cut, and place the cages then tie up the tomatoes with twine.  With the help of two other women and two budding little farmer girls, we steadied 32 plants by the end of the evening.

Before we left, I stood at the edge of the garden.  I thought about those tomato cages and how they are like friendship.

Sometimes, life showers us with situations that leave us heavy in mind, body and spirit.  We become droopy and fatigued, wondering if we can bear the weight of it all.  Then come our friends.  They can’t take away the burden, but they gather around us and prop us up–through kind words, gentle hugs, quiet reassurance, and mindful prayer, helping us to grow and blossom and lighten our load.