Sunday, November 13, 2016

Opportunity to testify - today's sermon

Opportunity to Testify
November 13, 2016
At Vancouver UCC
Luke 21:5-19

A few weeks ago, we sat together in small groups during worship and talked about some of our hopes for this congregation.  There were many great ideas to emerge from that process - as specific as “switch from natural gas to electric in our remodel,” and as general as “keep being welcoming the way we are now.”  But the one idea that came from nearly every single group, was this: let other people know more about us.  Get the word out to the wider community about the healing and the hope that happens here.  There were a few specific examples of how to do this – most having something to do with advertising. 

But none mentioned what we something in UCC circles call the e-word, a word we shun because it is so often associated with a  kind of Christianity many of us find difficult to relate to – evangelism, the simple act of telling other people about  your faith, and how your faith has transformed you.  This is NOT the same as telling your friends and neighbors and the guy behind you in the starbucks line about all our great programs and projects – true evangelism is most effective when it is most vulnerable, most willing to first look in and then reach out.  Evangelism is a time honored way to get people to learn more about this community of faith – to tell them about it – both with words and with actions. 

Now, there are several problems with evangelism as far as progressive commmuities like ours are concerned.  I tried to list them. First, evangelism is embarrassing.  Second, well it’s embarrassing.  And third, it’s really very embarrassing.

Really, no matter how say it, polite progressive people shrink from evangelism, from sharing our personal faith stories, because we don't want to be embarrassed or embarrass someone else.   What this week has shown me more than anything is that we no longer have the luxury of embarrassment – our lgbt family, our disabled family, our immigrant family, our African American family – might say that it was a luxury we could ill afford for a long time.

Listen to the gospel reading from this week.    Jesus is telling his disciples about the destruction of their most sacred and beloved institution.  Not just a church building (although we know how devastating the destruction of a building can be can be) the temple was the center of government, of commerce, of fellowship, of celebration, of education, or worship.  It was, literally, where God lived.  In short the temple was the center of everything.   In  Jesus’ telling, the destruction won’t be for some time.

But Luke is writing this story two generations after the temple is destroyed.  So he’s writing about a past event, an event that already really happened.  And he’s writing about the destruction, the terror, the violation, as if it is the future, as if it is something that has not yet happened.  So in a way, there is a timelessness to the description of destruction, waste and terror – it is happening in the future and it is happening in the past and, yes, it is happening right now. 

Our own metro area has been the center of nation media attention, as national protests rock Portland’s streets every night. But the destruction that I would like to focus on this morning is the is the nationwide destruction of personal safety and human rights.  It does not matter who you voted for.  The violence that we’ve seen this week threatens our most sacred and beloved institutions – religious freedom, welcome of immigrants, safety for all.

These are some of the stories I have heard his week.
A Muslim girl’s hijab was ripped off by a group chanting the name of our president elect.
A Mexican child was told, “you’ll have to leave the country now.”
A Black woman was pushed into the street while walking, called a despicable epithet and told to stay off the sidewalk
A college student who was groped by a fellow student who crowed, “we can do this now whenever we want.”
There was n unprecedented spike in calls at a suicide hotline for trans persons
In a group in downtown Portland, a Jewish man tells us his sister began preparations to emigrate to Spain (“where our family has not lived since 1493”) because “if my grandfather hadn’t gotten out of Germany none of us would have been born.”
A clergy person who had gone to standing rock told me “I had hope for the environment, now I don't have any.”
I received a frantic phone call on Thursday from an out lesbian whose LGBT support group in rural Oregon was broken up by armed militia.

Jesus, in his sometimes uncomforting comforting way tells us how to respond to times like this.  These days are an opportunity, he says, to testify.  To speak boldly.  The tell the truth of what we believe about a God whose preference is for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the oppressed, the violated.  To remind others by word and by deed that God’s love and embrace is much bigger than our buildings or institutions. God’s love spills out into the streets and our homes and the world – a lesson this community of faith – post fire, post building -  is in a unique position to understand and communicate. 

Is it really just embarrassment that is stopping us from speaking? Is it just embarrassment that stops us from proclaiming, “I stand with you because my faith tells me that I must”  and “I love you because God loves you”  and “I take risks because I follow Jesus, and he took risks”

Sandy Messick, the DOC area minister in this region wrote this week: Before I claimed a political party affiliation, God claimed me. Before we were Republicans or Democrats, we were and are beloved children of God; more specifically we are followers of Christ. As such, we are called to be Christ’s witness in the world, Christ’s hands and hearts and voice. That has not changed…We are called to stand with those who are afraid and uncertain about what the future may hold and stand against language and actions that injure and divide. We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us.” (http://www.disciplesnw.org/newsletter/rev-sandy-messick-word-region)

If you want to show that love in a visible way, you might consider taking a safety pin from the communion table today and pinning it to your jacket as you go out in public. There is a small movement afoot to wear a safety pin as a sign of solidarity and support for those who may be targeted in these distressing days.  It’s such a small thing, not hardly anything really, to fasten a pin to your shirt. (http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_safety_pinned)  It hardly seems like enough.  And yet, it is one way to share testimony, to say “We are called to love one another as Christ has loved…”

Yesterday, I took a break from the 24/7 screen diet I’d been ingesting all week and took my son and godchildren outside to rake the leaves.  As we raked the leaves into big piles, leaves continued to fall all around and on us, including on places we had just cleared.  I was reminded of my dad who used to leave the house in the middle of a big snow storm to go outside and shovel snow, with the flakes still swirling all around him.   We used to tease him, about this, I think.  It seemed so futile, this act of cleaning up what continued to happen. But yesterday as we raked the leaves, I understood it.  

You gotta start shoveling before all the snow has fallen.  You gotta rake leaves before all the leaves are on the ground.  You gotta overcome the embarrassment that stops you from testifying enough to fasten a pin from your coat.  You must start.  Now, today, in whatever small way you can.    And then your soul, Jesus promises, will not wither, shrink and die away.  Your soul will live.


Amen.  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Christmas and Easter Baseball Fan

Rizzo and Heyward.  (Hey guys, I know your names now,
in time for the season to be over.)
I'm not really even anything so grand as a fair weather fan, unless you can call someone a fan who tunes in on the 5th inning of the 7th game of the World Series. 

I know the words fastball and curveball, but that is where my knowledge of pitching ends.  I had to ask Jeff and Elijah for probably the fiftieth time about the foul ball rule. (The first two are outs but after that they are just...annoyances? I mean, that is a weird rule, right?  It'd not just me, right?)   I'd never seen (or truthfully even heard of) any of the players before tonight.  But there I was was in the tenth inning, cheering and then biting my nails and then jumping up and down in front of the TV along with the rest of you. 

It's a good reminder that even someone like me, someone who watches less than one half of one baseball game per year, can get something out of it.  You  - with your season tickets,  and your drawer full of Cubs shirts, your knowledge of the rules, your little paper stats sheet, you who have not missed a single game this season  - thank you all.  Thank you for keeping it going for a long long long dry season (108 years!), so I could step into the flow of the game and feel for a couple of hours on a rainy night like I am part of something bigger than myself.

I had a meeting with the pastor relations team at my church this week.  They are a dedicated and thoughtful bunch, and we took some time to assess where we've been in the past six months, and to tentatively look ahead to where we might be going.  I've been feeling really grateful lately for those church people who understand how Church works, who keep it going even in these strange days After The Fire.  These are the season ticket holders, I thought, looking around the table this week. They do not give up, no matter how long it takes (although please dear Jesus, let it not take 108 years to rebuild from this fire, ok?).  They hang in there.  And they make the space sacred and ready to welcome anyone who comes to sing and laugh and cry and pray, even at the eleventh hour, even if just for a few moments.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

This is my Father's world, too

Like the rest of America, I've had a kind of bad week and finally I lost my temper yesterday.
I'm not much of a temper loser.  I can pretty much count on one hand the number of times I felt the sudden upwelling of rage that I felt yesterday when a (large-ish but not, as it turns out, essential) piece of our van fell off and the male driver of the car behind us ran over it instead of stopping.  Once when I was a teenager I grabbed a hunk of my brother Mark's hair and pulled him up a flight of stairs.  Once when I was young mother I slapped my boy toddler.  Once I really lost my shit with a toxic employee. Once I got stuck in the middle of helping Jeff fix his wheel chair and I had to run outside to prevent an act of violence I felt sure was just below the surface.

I thought with an excess of prayer and therapy and yoga and deep breathing, I had put explosions of fury behind me, but yesterday there it was again and it scared me.  Without too deep an understanding of how it works, I've always assumed vaguely that I had a "feminine side" and a "masculine side." I've blamed the masculine side for a lot of what does not serve me or the world - violence, for example.  Or  impatience or meanness or irresponsible sexual impulses or striving for a certain kind of hierarchical recognition and power.  The feminine side I've equated with compassion and tenderness, community-making and sabbath-tending. Since we do tend to make God in our own image as much as we would try not to, I have to say that I do this with God too.  To break down my theology to its most embarrassingly simplistic, when I'm challenged, that's the Boy God, when I'm loved, that's the Girl God.

Meanwhile, out in the rest of the rest of the world, masculinity isn't looking much better. I'm tempted to despair about rise of the alt-right male imagination, Maheur, and of course He-Shall-Receive-No-Links-From-Me.

Then the mail (Not the male, but the MAIL.  See what I did there?) arrived with a personal note from the ludicrously intuitive Jen Violi including this picture which I'd never seen before. And a note saying that she thought I just might need him this week.

(Incidentally, I once did some research on Norman Rockwell. Did you know he was an unhappy person who was estranged from his family for most of his marriage? For some reason I find this information enormously encouraging.)

I can't stop looking at him (the fiddler, I mean, not Norman Rockwell). He reminds me life is not as easy as black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, male and female.  He reminds me that The Masculine -in God, and the world, and my own united and divided soul -  can also be generative and playful and sexy and encouraging and creative and joyful and wise.

My good friend told me one time that she went away from Christianity to discover the feminine face of God.  And when she came back to the church, she leaned into the new (to her, and to me this week, I guess) discovery that God was big enough to be It All. We know so much more about genders than we used to, including that two genders are not nearly enough. But male and female can be included, I  hope, in the pantheon of gender expression, and maybe they can be healing.  "This is my Father's world," my friend joyfully sang with her new congregation. Because this is true too.

Yes, damage has been done in the name of the Father.  Yes, men have sometimes behaved abhorrently.  Yes, along with stiff white whiskers from the mole on my chin, the masculine within sometimes produces behavior I find alarming, want to pluck out as soon as I can get a grip on it.  But when we start to believe that the damage is all there is, that is when the patriarchy really will have won.

The aftermath of this election, whatever the outcome, will most certainly uncover more of the most despicable parts of masculine expression.  But, starting with me, that doesn't have to be all it does.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The CEB Women's Bible - A Review

From the moment I it slid out of the envelope, I knew this was the Bible I have been waiting for. The CEB Women's Bible cover does not feature flowers or pastels or curlicue fonts, as so many books marketed to Christian women seem to do. The cover is a rich burgundy, and the WOMEN'S is in bold capitals. Before I turned one page, I knew that this is a Bible that would not, with its layout or commentary, patronize to me as a woman, or indeed, as a human being.

 The rest of this Bible does not disappoint. With thoughtful introductions to each book and a reflection on each chapter, sidebar articles on topics of historical as well as contemporary interest, character sketches of over a hundred named and unnamed women in the Bible, an index of all the women in the Bible, questions for individual or group devotions, reading plans and sixteen beautiful maps, this is a treasure.

 The reflections encourage deeper consideration of the context of each chapter of each book. Some of the reflections provide historical or literary context of the chapter to come (reflection on page 97 describes the difference between the Ten Commandments and other Covenant Codes, for example). Others of the reflections are an invitation to prayerful reflection (Luke 11:1-13, p. 1309 "...the promise is that God, as a loving parent, will give us the presence of the Holy Spirit. This gift affirms that regardless of the state of our emotions, our faith, our schedule or our discipline, God is with us and will help us. All we have to do is ask"). And still others are a call to action (as in Esther 4, page 598, "Then and now, this chapter challenges hearers to use power and position for the benefit of others.") While the reflections themselves are powerful and helpful, my one very small quibble with this Bible's layout is that the word "reflections" is so very light that it's nearly impossible to see.

 The CEB Women's Bible commentary allows and even encourages women and men to be critical readers, questioning without dismissing the text. For example, a sidebar on "disability" on page 1274 warns that "the cure stories of the Gospels are not necessarily unmitigated good news for those faithful people who live with various disabilities..." and then goes on to note modern assumptions about the connection between healing and faith. But rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, a more careful reading is encouraged, "Most of the healing stories make no mention at all of faith or lack thereof."

 Women and dangerous sexuality have too often been conflated in the religious imagination. The CEB Women's Bible effectively takes this issue head on. Commentaries lift up those places where healthy sexuality between loving adults is celebrated in the Biblical narrative (examples in sidebars in Song of Songs, for example, or in Collossians 3). At the same time, stories and regulations about sexual exploitation and violence are also noted, sometimes with encouragement to see parallels in our own world today. I have not read every word of commentary, but I did not find explicit mention of the "clobber texts" too often used to batter members of the LGBTQ community. With such careful regard paid to so many marginalized groups from orphans to elders to immigrants to those with disabilities, this omission does seem like a missed opportunity.

A note on the CEB translation: I own several versions of the Common English Bible, and have already appreciated how this new translation makes accessible without dumbing down even the most complicated language. As with any new translation, some of the language may be jarring. Matthew 5:6-7 ("Happy are people who are hungry and thirst for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. Happy are the people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.") jumped out at me, for example. And yet, these alternative translations can also provided a new perspective and lead to the reader into deeper thought about those passages that we think we know by heart.

 All in all, I can highly recommend this beautiful and thoughtful Bible. I know in the years to come, it will be my close companion - for preaching, for study, for devotion and for inspiration.

(I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Born of Adoration





Monkey-mind, I heard someone once call the mind’s resistance to meditation. In my case, I am thinking, monkey-mind doesn't quite do it. It’s like the monkeys have invited their friends the lemurs and the flamingos and possibly even the giraffes to swing from the branches with them.  I have zoo mind.

There’s no one in this borrowed house except for me. I am acquainted with no one on the small island and even if I were, I doubt they would welcome a visit in the middle of the night. I’m all alone and I have zoo mind. 

Casting around, I find a book that a friend sent along with me on this retreat. He earnestly pressed it into my hands, saying that he had gotten a lot out of it, and maybe I would too.  I open it and read the first line, “We are built for contemplation.”*  I close it again with a sigh.  Obviously “we” means everyone in the world but me.

I wander around from room to room, looking at the art.  It’s mostly local scenery, and I wonder, not for the first time, why beach houses so often have beach art on the walls.  I mean, you can just look out the window to see the same thing.  There is one picture that's different, though, a mother kneeling near a child, and I pause in front of it for a moment.  It’s called “Adoration of Christ” and to my insomnia-addled brain, it seems to me that Adoration has for some reason replaced the word “Mother” in the title. Adoration is smooth and sweet and serene, her hands held away from the baby at an improbable angle. After a while, I lie down to stare at the ceiling and watch the zoo in my mind until the roosters outside crow to announce the not-yet-visible dawn.

Well, there’s no sense staying in the house all day.  I get in the borrowed car, and end up following a road that promises an overlook of the ocean.  When I get to the top and open the car door, I’m surprised by the coolness of the air.  I can’t quite identify a sharp, invigorating scent. The view is astonishing, but even a really terrific view for someone in the throes of zoo mind is a distraction only for a short time.  I decide to walk up a trail that promises a visit to a sacred rock. 

The path to the sacred rock is lined with other rocks, too smooth and flat and regularly placed to be accidental.  Each one is as long as I am. A sign explains that these are most likely birthing stones, beds where laboring women gathered in ages past.

A quick sudden rush of wind sends that sharp scent past me again and I finally recognize it as eucalyptus. I reach out my hand to touch one of the birthing stones, then close my eyes and shiver as a little shock of electricity goes up my arm.

I did not give birth to my son on a rock.  He was born in a hospital far from this place. In my mind’s eye, I am there with all the people and machines that supported us during the birth. Friends who drove us to the hospital, an iv standing by, a doula, a soft bed with warm blankets, a midwife, a bedpan, a CD of carefully curated music and a strap around my huge belly with a device on it that measured the baby’s heartbeat even though I kept saying, “He’s fine, he’s fine, the baby’s fine.” 

The baby, as it happened, was not fine. After birth, he was whisked to the infant ICU with my husband, where he would stay for ten more days before coming home to grow, in spite of predictions, into an active and sturdy toddler.  I do not think of that time, though. I think instead of the beginning, of pacing up and down the hospital hallway to start the labor.  I think of the contractions that could be eased only by standing in a shower. Of how I muttered the baby’s name over and over and over, urging him to help me help him be born. I think of the veins in my eyelids that all popped in a fine little web from the effort of pushing. I think of the slippery slide of the baby’s body crowning and borning. I think of blood and water and slime.  I think of how fierce we both were, the baby and me, how powerful and beautiful. I think of how I was never further from zoo mind than I was for those twelve hours.

I am breathing eucalyptus and touching a birthing stone, and for the first time since I arrived on the island, the monkeys and all their animal friends have stopped jumping through the trees.  Babies were born here, and although the setting could not have been more different, they were born just like my baby was born. Just like Mary’s baby, I suddenly realize, was born.  Of course Adoration wasn’t smooth and sweet and serene.  She was a mess.  Adoration pushed until the veins around her eyes popped. She squeezed her fists and shouted. Her mind and her body labored and strained and heaved, and she muttered the name of the Baby, pleading with him to help her help him come forth.  She was fierce and powerful and beautiful.  Adoration was complete surrender, absolute concentration. 

When I was fretting about something in the early days of pregnancy, a friend reassured me.  “Look around you,” she declared waving out the window at the busy street below, “everyone you see was born.”   Each circumstance is different, but being born of Adoration is the first birthright, a gift of surrender and concentration we carry with us always.  Somewhere along the way, we get distracted, seeing only the monkeys and the rest of the zoo, and ignoring the rustling, aromatic trees which have been there all along.

I drive slowly back down the hill to the borrowed house.  I open the book my friend gave me and read the first line: “We are built for contemplation.”  I read the next line, and the next.  And I keep reading, all the way to the end.


*From Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation


(I was talking with someone about mindfulness meditation recently, and it reminded me of this piece that I wrote awhile back.  I had hoped it would find a home in Weavings, but they sadly closed up shop before it could be considered. This is published here with gratitude and in honor of decades of inspiration from the writers in those pages.)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

In Aqua Zumba, No One Can See You Jiggle

I look just like this underwater.
(Or maybe not, but unlike Esther, I don't let
photographers follow me down in there.)
Found the picture here. 
I woke up pretty cranky on Friday morning. There was a full moon for one thing, and that always turns me into a werewolf. And I was already lonely for the Michigan part of my family who had flown away the day before.

And then, at the time I could go to the gym near my house, the only class on offer was Aqua Zumba.  I had no idea what that was, and the lizard part brain told me to just go back to bed. But the slightly higher functioning party of my brain - maybe the cocker spaniel part - figured it was better to go have someone tell me what to do for an hour then to mope around the house.

Aqua Zumba turned out to be outside, and it was like, practically negative gazillion degrees out, and I had to walk past other people in the pool, and then the instructor welcomed me as a newcomer to the class and told me it was "your time to be sexy and silly and have fun," so I almost gave up.  But I'm so glad I didn't.  It turns out loud music accompanied by whoops, and doing something called shark arms that make big splashes in the water, and then spinning up and around (exactly like Esther Williams!) with a half dozen hefty strangers is the best cure for crankiness ever. We were no longer overweight housewives, we were mermaids!  Or if we weren't exactly mermaids, no one could tell!  Because our whole bodies were totally underwater!

I don't know about you, but I'm not a big fan of doing new exercises.  At least in my case, the learning curve is so steep, and then the final result is generally...well, let's be kind and say "amateurish." Maybe it's different for you. Maybe you have no problem trying new exercises, but your lizard brain drags you by one leg away from other new things. Maybe for you the new thing is quitting your job, or moving to a new state, or trying some really weird food, or saying a prayer out loud, or going to a rom com for once instead of a serious thriller, or striking up a conversation with the scariest looking dude on the bus. Your lizard brain wants to protect you, but that doesn't mean it always knows what's best for you.  Maybe what's best for you is to cannon ball into the shallow end of the pool and see how it goes.  Who knows?  You may get to splash and make shark arms. You may be a mermaid for an hour instead of a grouchy housewife. You may emerge shivering a bit, but smiling.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Exposing Goodness or This Blog Is a Shovel

Krista Tippett spoke at the Powells Bookstore in my neighborhood tonight.  She said she gets frustrated when people don't think of her as a journalist.  She believes this is because we expect journalists to deliver bad news, and she considers it her role as a journalist to "expose goodness."

I haven't blogged here for almost a year.  It's not like I haven't done anything, I just haven't been blogging.  For instance, in the last year I published a book.  And published an essay in another one.  And left a ministry job I loved, but that was breaking my heart.  I started another ministry job that I  I  love without the heartbreak, although in the last year I sometimes wondered if I should be in ministry after all. I thought some about that bookstore/coffee shop/meditation space I could open.  Thought about buying real estate for an airbnb empire. I realized that both of those plans require more math than I'm willing to  do in a day.
In the last year, I saw the Martian directed by Ridley Scott and wished I had taken math more seriously before it was too late, because seriously, you guys, it is just too late for some things. Saw that new Star Wars movie three times. Or is it four? Saw Spotlight once, and that was more than enough to knock my socks right off.  I visited Cleveland and went to the ocean (separate trips!).  I read Yes, Please and listened to the audiobook and recommended both ad nauseum.  I cooked food with cashews in it for everyone I could.  I read almost all of a book for a new book club.  I did not buy the soundtrack to Hamilton but I still know that the first words are  "how could the bastard son of a whore and a something, something something...." Well, that's all I know.
In the last year, I cried because people died and cried because babies were born.  I spent approximately 342 hours wondering if anyone liked my awesome post on Facebook yet.  I truly tried to twitter,  I mothered a tween into teen-hood and also two and a half new shoe sizes. My husband and I made jokes and made love and fought and made up and disagreed and agreed to disagree.  The big sturdy lift and I helped my husband into his wheelchair  and out of his wheelchair about 527 times. (That's just a number I made up, by the way and so is the Facebook one from earlier.  I really do wish I had taken math just a little bit more seriously).
In the last year, I tore down a shed. I divided things into piles and then I sold the piles, or gave them away or threw them. I sold two cars and and bought one. I said goodbye to a beloved big old serious dog and hello to a beloved little young silly one.  I wrote the old school way, with a pen on a big notebook, just for me. I wrote other things that got passed around, and I wrote some things that hit brick walls.  I abandoned writing a truly terrible novel.
In the last year,  I hurt something and stopped going to yoga for a while and when I went back, I had not forgotten how to do it.  I lost a little bit of weight, but not so much that you'd notice.  I picked up dog shit from the back yard.  I  hectored my son into emptying the dishwasher,  doing his Spanish homework, saying "thank you."
In the last year, I went a little bonkers. Which for me looks like taking lots of long naps with the dogs and  eating peanut butter off a spoon and not answering when you call and binge-watching Star Trek Voyager or  The Good Wife (which, perhaps interestingly, has the same director as The Martian. But with less math). I consulted a spiritual director, a therapist, a ministry coach, a mentor, a minister,  the internet, a couple of self-help books, Jesus, and a set of tarot cards I got a thrift store.

I want, as Krista Tippett says, to make it my vocation to "expose goodness."  But looking back, I've done less of that than I would like.  I know that goodness can be found in the everyday, but I like her use of the word "expose."  Sometimes goodness is not just evident, not just lying there, all shiny on the ground.  Goodness is not always easy to see, to pick up. to slip into a pocket.  Sometimes it has to be dug up, uncovered,  excavated in order to be exposed - and digging is hard work.  I've been busy this past year, and some things have been very hard, which keeps me from wanting to work any harder.  But that's what needs doing next, I think -  to dig up, the excavate, to expose the goodness that just there under the surface.