Thursday, September 5, 2019

Some Pedicure Musings

I sit, soaking my feet in the warm water, grateful for this hour of feeling cared for. I read the New York Times for a few minutes, then opt for playing a ridiculous game featuring Simon's Cat. I lean into the massage chair, adding extra pressure to help with that one spot on my neck. It's the good sort of pain, the kind that means there is release. 

This is the other part of the ritual of a pedicure, removed from the work being done by the woman at my feet. She carefully removes old polish with a cotton ball and dead skin with what looks to be a cheese grater. She clips cuticles and trims nails and grates off some more dead skin. She does every step with a skill I don't understand, with hours of practice I'm sure I don't want to put in. A base coat, two color coats, and a top coat go on effortlessly and dry perfectly. I've never managed to do this for myself, but have a stash of nail polish just in case it changes. Her final act before I pay is slipping my flip-flops on my feet, carefully not smudging the polish. 

For a while, I play my game while cultivating gratitude for this woman, and her willingness and skill to give me a pedicure. It is a ritual I enjoy every few weeks, and she has given me the majority of the pedicures I've received here in Arizona. And as I look at her and talk with her some, I can't help but wonder: did she sign up for this?

Like most people who have given me a pedicure, she is an Asian immigrant. I realize after all these years, neither of us knows the other's name. I rarely make appointments and she doesn't check the sheet when I sign in. The conversation among staff is never in English. Now, I realize, I should ask. 

Mostly, though, I wonder if she came to this country with hopes and dreams unfulfilled by the hours sitting on the low stool. Or did she come here knowing that was what she would do so that her children would have a better life? Her son is beginning his second year at Arizona State University, majoring in Engineering. She is happy to talk some about him when asked. 

I also know she lives not far from the nail salon. I started coming to this salon because it was next door to my apartment, and I've stayed. I used to see her walking to work on my drive to work. She always walks, never drives, it seems. Given a choice, I can't imagine she wouldn't choose to drive on the days she carries an umbrella for shade. 

I wonder if this is what she signed up for, knowing so many immigrants are promised one thing and given another by those who help them immigrate. The owner of the shop rarely does pedicures, sticking instead to the more dignified work of manicures. It is unappealing work, work I feel a little guilty asking her to do. It also seems good, walking into a business I know is run by neighbors who value every customer who walks in. 

I also worry a little more about these neighbors today, wondering if they are safe. The current political climate is more difficult for brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking neighbors, but still, I wonder if they are nervous or have had loved ones deported. 

When I pay, I hand over cash at the shop's request, with a 20% tip for the services. I say thank you, hoping that can convey enough gratitude; her English remains limited enough that each request is asked and confirmed several times throughout the process. 

I believe and hope that this is holy, and respects this woman who is an immigrant living in a land I'm sure is still strange. I wish I knew how to be a better neighbor to her, and add that to the list of things I will work on before my next pedicure. For I remember not just Jesus' call to love my neighbor, but the oft-repeated command, "Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once an immigrant in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21)  It is one of the commands that set Ancient Israel apart in their world, and one much of the Christian tradition shuns. 

A few days a week, I interact with immigrants. It is not always easy. The woman who cleans my home sends text messages that must be deciphered and the landscapers at church repeat the same phrase over and over again, even though I assure them I understand. They don't trust my Spanish and I don't trust their English. It is not the same sort of hilarity that came with my seminary friends studying in a new country, and the pitfalls of those relationships. 

But I wonder, if when we encounter an immigrant in our day to day life, we offer some gratitude for the work they are doing and consider how they may have ended up her, might our world be a better place for it? 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Sheep's Story

Several years ago, I bought a sheep. A stuffed sheep, not a live sheep, though I can say that the idea of a live sheep sounds even more appealing than a stuffed sheep. I digress. 

I bought the sheep for camp, to be hidden around the camp as part of reading the parable of the lost sheep. In the years since that camp, the sheep has been a resident of my office. He's been used in other skits and conversations since there are a lot of sheep in the Bible. Kids love to come and take him from his shelf and play with him, always carefully putting him back in his place when asked. 

The sheep should probably have a name, but so far, he's just a sheep. 

In worship on Sunday mornings, we're reading through the stories of Elijah. It's a bit of a personal self-indulgence for these stories that I love. This past week, we read the story of Elijah being sent to a widow's home and providing miraculous oil and flour to keep her household alive through the drought. As I have other times, I came to worship with a bag of items to be sorted into stacks of wants and needs. This time, I gave the kids the task of sorting the items. 

This is one of those things that sounds so simple. It sounds like something somewhat funny and likely meaningful and definitely not heartbreaking. That's what it sounds like, until the kids started sorting. 

I always throw a roll of toilet paper into the mix. Adults nervously sort it into a need and are grateful when I assure them that's where I intended it to go. On Sunday, the kids stuck it firmly into a want. Some of the decisions were absolutely developmentally driven. A skillet and the adult-level book were quickly placed into wants while the children's book made it into needs. An angel that I chose as a decorative item made it into needs as symbolic of faith. 

And the four-year-old helping with this endeavor put every single soft, snuggly item on the needs table without hesitation. I had intended for the blanket to go on the table of needs. The emoji throw pillow was intended for the wants table. The stuffed sheep was definitely intended for the wants table. But for the four-year-old, bedtime quickly emerged: a blanket, a pillow, a stuffed animal to snuggle. He was right. A four-year-old needs those things. 

A few adults understandably chuckled at the stuffed animal added to the need table. I reminded them that when we collected items for asylum seekers, stuffed animals for comfort objects were included on the list of needs. Because four-year-olds need stuffed animals. So do three-year-olds and five-year-olds and six-year-olds and seven-year-olds and a lot of eight-year-olds. Nine-year-olds and ten-year-olds-and eleven-year-olds and twelve-year-olds and maybe even teenagers who have been through a lot also need stuffed animals. Those kids might even rank that need above things adults worry about kids having. 

There are so many things to say about children locked in detention right now. They are being traumatized, day in and day out. Ninety percent of brain development happens by age 5, so we are talking deep trauma that will affect them for their entire lives. Our society will literally pay the cost for years to come. We could talk about our call to love neighbor. We could talk about basic human rights. We could say so very many things. 

But at very least, I say this: let us never become so hard-hearted that we forget that a four-year-old needs a stuffed animal. 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

"This is my body": Some Mother's Day Thoughts

"This is my body, which is for you."

Every week, without fail, we remember Jesus' words, "This is my body, which is for you."

Today, I also note the privilege of those words. This is my body. It is a distinct privilege of a male savior who can utter those words and have no one question them. The self-emptying that follows is also a privilege, to give willingly rather than out of fear or expectation. This is the self-emptying of sacrifice, not one born of abuse and power.

These, these are my Mother's Day thoughts.

The older I get, the more I bristle at Mother's Day. I've failed to be able to name why for the most part. Some of it is the awkward of young adulthood, when holidays that are meant for families become exclusive once you're living away. That same discomfort continues into single adulthood, if that's your journey. In the Church that has mostly learned what to do with families, it's a moment of being a square peg in a round hole.

But it's not that. Not really.

It's about consent.

At the shallow end of things, stop trying to force people to buy gifts for someone. I love giving gifts, but do it out of love and joy. Capitalism aside, it's a little bit gross to not giving people the right to say yes to something.

Mother's Day and being a woman are nicely conflated at this point, and if you can undertake that deconstruction, God bless you. I can't. In the name of not excluding those of us who are mothers, plenty of people conflate the two even more. This week, my dentist's office gave me a carnation in celebration of all women, for example. In truth, me being a woman exists apart from whether or not I'll be a mother. I may end up being a mother or not, but reading that into the gender that I occupy is presuming a great deal. That has been true for many women, plenty of whom have opted out of motherhood for various reasons. I get to exist as a person who is a woman of full worth without being a mother. That should not be a radical statement. Imposing other identities upon me is violating.

Most of all, we are still at a place where we impose motherhood on women. We do not offer comprehensive sex education in our schools, neither in the United States as a whole and most definitely not in the state of Arizona. Contraception costs money, unless it's abstinence, and contrary to plenty of opinions, abstinence is the most ineffective form of sex education. We demonize Planned Parenthood, which offers both of those things for free. Abortion becomes less accessible and more criminalized most every week, because it is not her body.

Let me remind you again of the conflation of mothers and women, because plenty of people think the two should be synonymous.

Even Julia Ward Howe's call for the first Mother's Day was issued in a world where women did not get to choose to be mothers. In a world without contraception, being married meant being a mother more often than not--which also meant dying in childbirth fairly often. The connotations of being a spinster clearly give us an idea about how opting out of marriage and motherhood was received.

And so, in 2019, I am still longing for the right to exist as a woman who is not a mother.

I want to exist without flowers and pink things thrust in to my hands.
I want to live without a question about if I'll be using my uterus.
I want to have the right to make decisions about my body.
I want the right to say yes.
I want the right to say no.
I want to skip celebrating Mother's Day without anyone looking like I kicked a puppy.

I want the privilege of saying, "This is my body," and the choice of if I give it for anyone.

Church, what will we say about women?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

In Hope of Resurrection

I grew up in a tradition where Easter was more about crucifixion than resurrection. For several years now, my church has read the Passion narrative--the story of Jesus' trial and crucifixion--along with the Palm Sunday story. We tend to do a Maundy Thursday service project, but not much else when it comes to Holy Week. We still need the full story, to know the sadness before the joy. It's a rough Sunday, I'm not going to lie. The story is hard for kids and adults. But what is most striking to me is that, as I'm reading, I realize these are the stories from childhood churches. I know them from there, not from my life as a pastor. Then, the resurrection was more of an afterthought than a focus, for Jesus died for our sins.

Fast forward, and my understanding of Gospel has shifted. I no longer believe Jesus' death was a point of salvation, but the result of a corrupt system. It's a pretty staunchly Protestant sort of thing, with our empty crosses and such, but the fundagelicals seem to have skipped over the empty cross part. I need the story of resurrection. Because I have no doubt in the story of crucifixion. Over and over, innocent people die. Over and over, terrible things happen. Over and over, we destroy what is good. Over and over, we are frightened by something different. I know that story. I could learn that story just by existing with little intentionality.

I know there is crucifixion. I need the story of resurrection. I need the remotest glimmer of hope, the possibility that the worst thing is not the last thing.

Right now, children are held where I live. Not the next town, not the next state, not if I get in my car and drive for a bit. Where I live.

I need resurrection.

Right now, asylum seekers are being released in the streets of Phoenix, with nothing more than the clothes on their back. It's not an expression. Everything else they had with them has been taken and will not be returned. They are fleeing unimaginable poverty and violence. Being released means they have passed a credible fear interview and are trying to make it to some family member who will care for them during the years long asylum-seeking process. They have traveled through incredible danger. This is the way for them to seek legal status and by virtue of being released, they are in the country legally.

I need resurrection.

I wrote about a 35 year old who stepped in front of a dump truck and was killed. I did not write about the man who died from cancer related to exposure to Agent Orange. He is the one I know of. I shudder to think how many more there will be this year, not to mention the many others unable to shake wars in other ways.

I need resurrection.

Every day, I wonder who will be a victim of this administration. When Trump was elected, someone said, "Well, we survived two Bushes, we'll get through this." I'm white, cisgender, middle class, married to a man. I will survive. I have only one strike against me--being a woman. Then there's the whole healthcare issue, but maybe that's too much to go into. I will survive; I do not know if my friends of different demographics will.

I need resurrection.

I'm still writing, still working, still thinking about Easter. I'm still thinking about the tears shed last Sunday as we read the story of Jesus' final hour. I am not the only one who needs resurrection. I will sit with the sadness and the brutality for a few more days. It is not yet Easter, but I am aware of how dark the tomb feels right now.

For all those who need resurrection, hang on. Sunday is coming. And this worst thing will never, ever be the last.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A Eulogy and a Hope

On the days when I need Church--the deep, visceral need for something Holy, something present, something transformative--I long for beloved community. Today is a day I need Church.

My friend died yesterday. He stepped in front of a dump truck and is gone. I hadn't seen or talked with him since college graduation now thirteen years ago, but I still call him friend. And I say that because a thought of him still brings a smile, as rare as thoughts of him might be. When gathered with friends, his name would come up as we laughed together. He was good and kind and beloved. Pictures of him show up any time I look back on college days. Friend is most certainly the right word.  

I've been on the internet more than usual today--well, on social media. I've texted more with friends today than I usually do. I've talked on the phone with people I normally don't call. This is the outpouring of grief for our friend. We want to tell stories, to talk about him, to laugh together. For even if we haven't seen each other in years, we are bound by those years in college. We are bound by that version of beloved community. 

If I had what I wanted, what would provide rest for my soul, we would gather somewhere together tonight. There would be drinks and food and hours spent laughing and talking and crying and praying. We would share the most holy communion, maybe as sacrament, maybe not. Some of the people missing our friend today might get to do that. I will not. The people I would choose to gather with are in Tennessee and Virginia and Ohio and Indiana, while I am in Arizona. This version of beloved community is in diaspora right now. Who knows if we will get to gather again. 

Maybe it doesn't sound that different from what people who love each other do--but this thing for which my wound aches seems far more holy than what I have seen at a bar. This is Church, the Church I am constantly in amazement of--that tells stories of death and life week in and week out. We tell a story of a God who was born, of a God who died, and all the grief wrapped up in those events and the in between. God bless the Church, who knows what to do when someone dies. There's no other institution that manages it quite so well or so readily. It's wrapped up in our own stories of our salvation. Let us sit with death and all that brings, for it is not quite so scary here, together, alongside resurrection people. 

As a pastor, I hope I can give people a beloved, wonderful community. I hope I can give them a Church that is more life-giving than a career that might take them elsewhere, and a place to call home in a deep, good way. I hope the church gives roots that reach down more deeply than anything else. It sounds impossible, until the moment we are all longing for that beloved community we once knew. It sounds as countercultural as the Gospel actually is. It sounds dangerous enough to execute a person over. It sounds like salvation. 

Even today, I do not grieve as those who have no hope. I'm mostly agnostic about the afterlife. I still believe my friend will receive whatever good may come. God knows, if not him, then who? 

And here is the story that I most remember, which is not particularly hilarious or amazing, but is dear. One day, we were standing talking underneath the trees on campus by the parking lot in front of the men's dorms, early in our freshman year. His name was Adam Bisesi, and he often went by his last name. Somehow, in conversation, he spilled his high school nickname, "Bisexy." (Bih-sexy) Immediately after he did, he blushed and began stumbling, "Oh, no. I didn't mean to say that. Please, don't use it." And I laughed. As another friend put it, he was mortified and I found it hilarious. That was so often the case. 

For this gift from God I give thanks. 

May the peace of Christ carry us all. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Being Dust

Every year around Ash Wednesday, my colleagues start asking, "What are alternative words for the imposition of ashes?" Apparently, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," is a little too much for some people. They especially shudder at offering those words to children.

For many reasons, I never have. This somber reminder remains beautiful to me, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." For the record, the only reaction of the first child I offered ashes to was a question to his dad, "Do I look cool with this on my forehead?"

Even on its not so great days, the church is pretty decent at telling truth. We may not see some of what we out to see about ourselves, but we have this story of deep, last Truth that we've been telling for centuries. We cease to exist without it.

And so, on this day, we say softly to one another this deep truth: "You are dust and to dust you shall return." It is not threat nor promise; it is reality. Even apart from the stories of Genesis, we are sustained by the earth on which we walk. Without dirt, we do not eat. The presence of chemicals may delay our return to the earth. It does not prevent it. 

This truth we share mocks so many lies that we are told. I live in the land of active and vibrant 55+ communities, because heaven forbid we grow old. One is named Leisure World, and only the teenagers laugh at our mortality, calling it Seizure World instead. It fits well in a world where gym membership and diet advertisements are now year round instead of for the first few weeks of the year. I often see inspiration of people who started running in their fifties or weight training in their sixties. I affirm that this improves the quality of their lives and likely extends their life. It will not, beyond a shadow of a doubt, make them immortal. 

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. 

If I were to add anything to that claim, I would add, "And that's a good thing." 

It is good to be just like everyone else in at least one deep, unending way. 
It is good for our lives to be forever linked to the matter all around us. 
It is good for us to know the world neither begins nor ends with us. 
It is good, this promise that we are not all-powerful. 

It is so very good that we are dust from beginning to end. 

Let us take a few minutes to remember this good. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

About Church

I wrote this a few days ago for the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. In the midst of the last few days, it seems like it matters to share here, too.