Friday, April 14, 2017

Grieve, Dear Friends

"Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last." (Matthew 27:50)

Grieve today, dear friends. Grieve today and tomorrow. Grieve in the midst of sunny skies and packing Easter baskets. Grieve in the midst of soccer games and ballet lessons. Grieve while walking the dog or feeding the cat. Grieve as you eat dinner and wait on your morning coffee.

Grieve.

These two days hold within them so much grief. As deep as the pain caused by the unjust death of a savior is, there is so much more to grieve for.

Grieve for the children in Syria, the combatants in Syria, the people whose lives are being shredded day by day. Grieve for the use of chemical weapons and bombs. Grieve for the ancient cities destroyed day by day.

Grieve.

Grieve for Karen Smith and Cedric Anderson and Jonathan Martinez. Grieve for childhoods ripped away from the kids at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino.

Grieve.

Grieve for the men in Chechnya being forced into concentration camps. Grieve for violence on Palm Sunday, leaving churches covered in blood.

Grieve. Of course, you should sign petitions and go to rallies and send letters and do anything else that might possibly slow down the madness. In doing so, do not forsake the act of grieving.

Grieve. Mourn. Sit in dirt if that helps. Dress in black if that feels right. Shout at the heavens. Weep in the shower. But grieve, dear friends. Let your heart be broken into a million pieces, then a million more.

Grieve, for this is resistance. Resist the normalization of reckless abandon for human life. Resist the normalization of sweeping destruction under the rug. Resist the "again" of school shootings, as if it will surely happen again and again. Resist the "history of violence" as if that makes everything ok and you're going to be just fine. Resist. Resist every unholy, violent, destructive thing, for that does not come from God.

Grieve today. Grieve tomorrow. Grieve as if it is God-breathed, kingdom-building work. For it is.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pride's Lessons on Bodies

I'd never go to Pride Festival if my church didn't table there. Actually, the chances of me choosing to go to any festival are slim. Paying to be in crowds of people with overpriced food and drink ranks very, very low on my list of things to do.

Still, in this case, I go. Jesus has a way of sending us to places we'd never go on our own.

Pride is always an interesting experience. There were no protestors this year and one of the men walking beside me as we approached the entrance said, "Is it even Pride if there aren't protestors?" I laughed, all the while self-conscious in my church t-shirt. Inside the gates, we're not the only church present by any means. Pride does, indeed, cause a massive collision of values for me. I guarantee the values aren't any that anyone immediately thinks of. You see, at Pride Festival, bodies are good.

Bodies are good.

It's amazingly, wonderfully, unbelievably radical. It breathes life into the dusty places of my soul.

American Christianity has widely embraced Gnosticism, a dualistic view of body and soul. The body, of course, isn't as good as the soul, which must be cared for in spite of the body. Pretty much every church that talks about your eternal soul is guilty of some form of Gnosticism. Theology aside, we're also really uncomfortable with bodies.

I cannot count the number of conversations I've had regarding what kids wear to camp, school, and pretty much every place else. We've worried about midriffs and bra straps and too much thigh and pants falling off and no shirts and visible underwear on absolutely anyone. The robe I wore before moving to Arizona (where the heat wins every fight) was in many ways a deference to policing bodies. Sitting on a dais in a knee-length skirt is nightmare. Couple that with the sexist fact that women's clothing isn't made for microphones and a robe made everything easier. That doesn't even begin to hit the conversation on weight and how comfortable we are with judging people because of their weight.

My culture and my faith have managed to tell me bodies are evil or tempting or only acceptable if they look a certain way. Pride upends that in all the most wonderful ways.

Anyone can wear booty shorts if it suits them. Pasties are welcome. Big, little, and everything in between is just fine. Your body is your body. No shame. No one gives an interesting ensemble a second look. No one gawks at bodies. It's downright revolutionary.

And it's better. The dusty parts of my soul say it's better like this. It's much better than how we live day to day when even a woman feeding a child is scandalous. Breasts, you know. We started a Bible 101 class just a few days before Pride, and reading through the creation story, I'm reminded of the claim, "And they were naked and unashamed." Somehow, bodies just being bodies really is better.

On the way home from Pride, I was on the train with a woman and her four granddaughters. They were having a marvelous time. They'd been somewhere for lots of fun, including making coffee filter butterflies. I'd guess the oldest was around 8 years old. The light rail was basically an amusement park for them, and they squealed with delight at every stop and start. I heard a mention of "the candy bag." Near my stop, she asked about the sign I was holding, which led to a conversation about Pride. We didn't have any additional conversation after that.

As I looked at her granddaughters, full of energy, confident that their bodies were meant for bending and holding on to things and helping them have fun, I became even sadder. She had no idea how much they need Pride.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A New Place

My partner and I moved last month. Yeah, that has to do with lack of posting. It turns out, moving sucks a lot of energy for several weeks.

We moved to a bigger apartment. We moved closer to his work. We moved to be on the light rail so he wouldn't have to fight rush hour traffic every day. It's been a good move, despite a longer commute for me. Actually, the biggest change has been living in acute awareness of my privilege.

Privilege, as we know, is least evident to those who have it. I've never ranked at the top on quizzes like this one or this one, but I've never been at the bottom either. My family was and is fairly stable. My parents always managed well with resources, even if those were limited. We did spend my youngest years below the poverty line; there was pride that our family didn't take free lunch, even though we qualified. However, my accent is largely gone, because it had to disappear in order to be taken seriously. I remember getting asked if I wear shoes because of where I grew up. True, I'd largely prefer not to wear shoes, but that would be considered weird in eastern Kentucky, too.

We could talk a lot about privilege, including living with an extra bedroom, an extra bathroom, and a washer and dryer. What is most evident, though, is the difference in environment.

Where we live now is poorer and more urban than where we lived before. A couple miles east is very poor. A couple miles west is on the wealthy side of things. The apartments on the other side of the freeway that were also on the light rail were well outside our budget. It's not what most people would consider a bad part of town, but neither is it the best part of town. Honestly, if not for the gentrification happening around the light rail, I'm not sure we would have moved there.

Here, especially in the stores closest, my neighbors are all shades of skin. Here, the grocery stores block off one entrance after dark. The Wal-Mart in the town near where I attended college did the same, but only after 10 p.m. It's strange to encounter it at 7 p.m. We don't go to the grocery store nearest our apartment because it's not as well stocked as the same chain just a mile or two in the other direction. The produce section is lacking. Boxes of macaroni and cheese are always on sale and piled in bins near the front of the store. The music is rather terrible country, too, which doesn't help anything.

I walked over to the park across the road and was the only person present who would be considered white, of the European descent variety. Expletives were occasionally shouted in the skate area. I only caught snatches of the conversation happening among the men playing cards; those snatches made me steer clear. Homeless people were gathering here in the evening. A few had already made camp in the nearby field. A few shared dinner in one of the ramadas. I didn't feel unsafe. It was also the first time I saw that sort of community in the park; it was obviously a regular ritual. The presence of these homeless neighbors made the bars on the benches make sense. They were divided into seats, the arms added after manufacturing, to prevent sleeping on the benches. Most parks I've been in certainly didn't bother with adding arms.

The differences are subtle. There are no more sounds of sirens than where I lived before. My neighbors are quieter, even. The grocery stores, though, have MPower stations, the pay-as-you-go version of electric service here. I didn't even know it existed for at least a year of living here. The rate is slightly higher and you load cash onto a debit card; you also don't end up with a bill you can't pay. Knowing that regular accounts require a deposit or credit check, of course this exists.

The St. Vincent de Paul thrift store is just across the road. Small almost bodegas are plentiful along the stretch of road, as well. People walk on the sidewalks most all the time. Many are students at ASU, but many are not.

I know one day these things that point to the difference in place will disappear into the background of where I live. Maybe. Four years later, the spring smells of the desert are still a beautiful surprise. Saguaro surprise me in a way green trees don't, even when I haven't seen them for a year. And maybe, if I can keep those differences in sight, I will step more fully into the reign of God.

After all, this is part of the benediction I give often at the close of worship:
               May you see as God sees.
               May you hear as God hears.
               May you love as God loves
               as you go out into the world.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Abundant Life

We sat in a circle, holding on to stars. Some of us held on to our stars the whole time. Some of us folded back points. Some of us tore off the points of our star. It was an exercise in understanding the life impact of being LGBTQ.

The church I serve has welcomed LGBTQ people for a long time. There is welcome of everyone who walks in, sure, but deep welcome of people who had to seek out a church where they'd be welcome. There are treasured memories of same-sex couples whose names still come up regularly. The two women who led the charge to rework our patio are names I know well, thought I've never met either of them.

I smile when folks in my congregation avoid pronouns if the person can't answer the question of, "What's your pronoun?"

"Ok. That person is like God," someone responded to a particular visitor. And so, for the duration of a visitor's somewhat short time with the congregation, we avoided pronouns and said, "Welcome." That visitor is, indeed, a long story. But no one ever doubted that visitor should be at our church, and was worthy of love.

Doing this particular exercise, called Star Training, was a bit unusual for a congregation that has the welcome of the LGBTQ in our DNA. When talking with the faith director of One Community AZ, who offered the training, he wondered a bit about the benefit. It turns out, he's not a fan of The West Wing, but still, I quoted Toby Ziegler, who said in response to the cry, "You've got me preaching to the choir," "That's how you get them to sing." He laughed and understood.

Even though I'd done the Star Training before, I wasn't quite prepared for the tears, and the raw emotion in the room. Part of being a church that welcomes LGBTQ people is that, for most members, there is deep investment in this choice. Sometimes, it's deeply personal, as an LGBTQ person who has been shut out of church. Other times, it's a child, a sibling, or a parent who you need to know would be welcome in your church, too.

The conversations are always strange for me on a personal level. My hair is often short enough that people assume I'm a lesbian, then see me in a dress wearing make-up and aren't sure. I've dated women, but married a man. Of all things, I married a Scotch-Irish Christian man, despite dating far more Indian men and Middle Eastern men, Hindu and Muslim, respectively. I've gone through various butch phases, including the cargo shorts and men's t-shirts phase. It's strange. Bi and straight both seem weird labels for this definitely not far left person on the Kinsey Scale. I live my life, right now, on the femme side of things. It took recognizing the horrible cultural expectations of women for cisgender to feel right. There are a lot of traditional roles of women I've shunned, but the body suits me well enough. I recognize my own baggage around gender, in particular, and I fit the molds well enough. I even have the wedding gifts to prove it, and the pictures of me in a white dress.

I remember a morning back in my life as a fundamentalist, a time when I certainly didn't fit the molds as well. I was walking down the stairs along the hill one morning. The buildings of the college campus were just visible in the first light of day. For some reason in that moment (I'm guessing because I'm generally grumpy until 8 or 9 in the morning),  I remembered a promise of Jesus, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." I realized that had never been my experience of faith.

Looking back, I see the community of that place as an incredibly abundant experience. Well, at least most of it. Things like a ridiculous worry about sex detracted from that abundance. In that place, though, the gauge of, "Is this life-giving?" became life-giving to me. My own life took lots of twists and turns as a result. More importantly, though, it has become the gauge for pastoral ministry. "Is this life-giving?"

That question becomes a lens to interpret other scripture. It becomes a way of making decisions. It often prods a yes instead of a no. Above all else, that question always prods compassion. There is nothing life-giving about hungry people. There is nothing life-giving about poverty wages. There is nothing life-giving in illiteracy. There is nothing life-giving about sleeping on the streets. There is nothing life-giving in absurd clich├ęs when someone dies. There's so much that is not life-giving that we encounter every single day.

And be sure, there is nothing life-giving in kicking children out of homes, or denying people a romantic relationship, or forcing someone who wants to wear pants to wear skirts. As we sat around the circle on Sunday, holding our stars, we also heard those sorts of terrifying statistics. Kids who come out as LGBTQ are still far more likely to be homeless than any other demographic. The suicide rate remains alarmingly high among LGBTQ people. Holding a job, which most of us take for granted, is a privilege that may be lost at any time. There are all of these things that other people do that offer death instead of life--often quite literally.

I come back to the words of Jesus that aren't quoted nearly as often as I'd like, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." It's a worthy goal for those of us who follow Jesus.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Persistence

I've never liked the parable of the persistent widow. I just haven't. I avoided preaching on it. I kinda liked the interpretation given by A.J. Levine. It didn't change my mind much, though. When I'm talking with people about church, this is never the story I tell. I often quote Matthew 25. The Prodigal Son comes up fairly regularly. Pretty much everything else in Luke makes me exceedingly happy.

This parable, though, no. Not at all. If you're not familiar with it, the summary is there was a corrupt judge who gave the widow justice only because she annoyed him enough to finally do what was right. I have to say, there's a very real element that resonates with a seven year old: if I don't stop asking, eventually I'll wear mom or dad down. Pony, here we come!

Then, Elizabeth Warren ends up silenced while speaking against a Supreme Court nominee and Mitch McConnell ends up talking about why he did it, and we have the wonderful line, "Nevertheless, she persisted."

Damn right, she did.

It has been a wonderful few hours of hearing women's stories, all the ones that invoke, "Nevertheless, she persisted." And I love the story of the persistent widow now. One of the best parts about the Bible is that it can always be heard anew.

In this case, I never noticed really that the cause is what makes the story worthwhile, not the action. The deep, abiding truth is that justice isn't given easily. Most people don't want justice; they want power. We're seeing that play out in ways almost unimaginable as men create laws about women's bodies and the new version of the KKK is making pleas for enrollment. Then, of course, there are the Muslims who are being vilified at every turn possible.

One of the best reminders for me that has come out of this time is the danger of narrating justice as given. We do that a lot. Women were given the right to vote. White people freed slaves. White people ended segregation laws. The reality is, the women, the slaves, the African Americans worked for those rights. They marched, they rallied, they were threatened. The less-than-human narrative around slaves meant the life of a person with dark skin was expendable; plenty of those black lives were and are expended as a result.

I'm a little embarrassed that it took me this long to connect this story to these experiences. I'll even go so far as to say it's my own racism that means it took a white, privileged woman whom I admire to make me see it.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

As much as I love Elizabeth Warren, I also am reminded that having the holy narrative in addition to these secular narratives matters deeply. First, it does, indeed, reorient us toward justice. When we live with a broken justice system, when just is a filler word or a water down word, when justice is the name of a clothing store that didn't choose the name because of a commitment to sustainability or fair wages, we don't exactly have a good view of justice. We need a theology of justice because, practically, we're far from it. We need stories of peace, abundance, and sharing resources. We need the stories of sacred scripture, not just the ones that flit through popular channels.

Second, and more importantly, it is the holy narrative that gives us energy. One person gets tired. One congregation gets tired. But seeking God's justice is not a thing I do, it is a thing we do. It is a thing we do in partnership with God. As the story of the persistent widow flows through my mind, I remember the lectionary text from Isaiah a few weeks ago, "But here is my servant, the one I uphold...he won't be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land." In between those lines is even more imagery of this faithful servant who brings justice without violence. Christians have interpreted this faithful servant as Jesus.

And here, the feminine imagery for the church that normally drives me crazy comes in handy. Because as I read of the injustice happening all around us, as I read stories of laws designed to create more injustice, I am also holding on to a place that God blessed, breathed, and called out, trusting that there is one thing that can be said of the Church: nevertheless, she persisted.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Perfect Love

My partner and I have been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Say what you like about the fashion choices and some of the early special effects, the storylines hold. Joss Whedon, atheist that he is, remains a better theologian than many preachers I've met. Like Stephen King, he has a deep understanding of human nature and critiques it well.

We're into season two now, where the villains linger from the season before: the Master and the Anointed One. If you're not a Buffy fan, no worries. You pretty much need to know they're villains who plot to destroy the world. And yes, that's true of every single season in some way. The Master, in all his evil mastermindy-ness, talks about humans, saying something very similar to: "What do you think the greatest force in the human world is? Love? No, they'd like you to believe it's love. It's fear. Fear is what drives and motivates."

It probably sounds more dastardly when he said it. I'm not rewatching for the quote right now. I might already spend more time than I'd like doing that.

But I do rewatch, reread, revisit because it's easy to forget. There's no way I'd have remembered that line from the last time I watched Buffy, likely three years ago. And you know what? The Master spoke the truth.

He spoke what is painfully true apart from God.

I feel the fear right now. Sometimes it's masked in anxiety. Friends speak of sleepless nights for many reasons. Some can name their fears. On the liberal side of things, the echoes are painful: I'm afraid for my healthcare, my kid's school, my safety. I fear for my marriage. I fear what comes next.

Before that, though, I remember the others fears: Muslims will try to convert me and my children; bombs will fall here; I can't find a job to feed my family. The fear of hell looms in some other issues named as evil: abortion, gay people, trans people. Even if I think the fears are unfounded, I do not deny their reality for the people who are so fearful. Unfortunately, a person's reality is often not something grounded in facts, alternative or not.

As I watched the Master, the vampiry-est vampire of the vampires, breathe these words, I remembered, "Perfect love casts out fear." Some book from the Bible called John taught me that. Much more I didn't remember.

Well, luckily, the internet makes searching even easier. Here's more from the bit of text I remembered. The translation is different than the one I used then, but I liked this one. It's from 1 John 4 starting in the second half of verse 16: "God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them...There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment."

There's a lot more in there, of course. Somewhere, I knew it before: fear has no place with God.

For us, who are all trying to assuage fears of our own, we could end up with a good set of questions to help us live, especially right now:

  • Am I calming fear? If so, you are likely doing some good. I'm not talking about the "Trump won't be as bad as you think," version. Let me tell you, anyone afraid because of Trump will just want to punch you in the face. I'm talking about taking their fear seriously and offering something that might actually do some good. I'll fight for your marriage, too. I'll register, too. I'll introduce you to the refugees I know. 
  • Am I creating fear? There's talking about issues and there's creating fear. Which are you doing? Fear paralyzes. Issues motivate. Which are you doing? 
  • Are you punishing someone? Y'all. This is the "You got your eight years, now let us have ours." Or the "She had sex so she has to deal with the results." 
I'm not pretending for a moment that those questions solve everything. They do go a long way, though. 

May our love drive out the fears of others.




Thursday, January 26, 2017

Unlikely Saviors

If y'all have not been following the National Park Service Twitter, uhm, amazingness, then start Googling. See, it all started when the National Park Service retweeted photos comparing the crowds at Trump's inauguration to Obama's inauguration. They also retweeted one about the new administration removing pages from the White House website. After those, the Interior Department ordered a shutdown of their Twitter activity. They apologized for the retweets, then were back up.

Well, two days later, Badlands National Park started tweeting facts about climate change. These were seen as anti-Trump administration by many, went viral, and were later deleted. Yes, part of this is in response to the media blackout ordered by the new administration on the Environmental Protection Agency. The official story was that a former employee who was not authorized to use the account posted, so they were deleted in response to the compromise.

Since then, AltUSNatParkService has been created. Their tweet? "Can't wait for President Trump to call us FAKE NEWS. You can take our official twitter, but you'll never take our free time. All of that is background to get me to this morning, when checking news and social media, and a tweet that had been shared on imgur. I'm posting it, too, because it made my morning. It reads, "First they came for the scientists...And the National Parks Services said, "lol, no" and went rogue and we were all like, "I was not expecting the park rangers to lead the resistance, none of the dystopian novels I read prepared me for this but cool." Grammar and precision of language issues aside (and y'all know that takes a lot for me!), I'm in love with the idea shared. I might even enjoy hanging out with the original tweeter.

I'd probably love the NPS person more. And all the other people creating AltGovernmentAgencyTrumpDoesntLike accounts. One of them uses "Rogue" instead of alt.

I'm well aware of the privilege of this country. I'm well aware of my privilege within this country. I'm also well aware that what is happening now threatens not just our country, but our world. Still, as I wonder about healthcare, worry about a continued free press, and try to stay engaged with news I don't want to read, I am hopeful in unlikely saviors.

I am hopeful in church agencies that say, "We've always taken care of refugees and that won't change." I am hopeful in the organization happening at local levels to protect vulnerable communities of all sorts. I am hopeful in Dan Rather, pushing forward news--actual, researched, fact-checked news. (I mean, my family watched NBC not CBS, so Tom Brokaw's voice is what exudes truth, but I'll take Dan Rather.)

And yes, I'm hopeful in Twitter, the same platform that kept us abreast of the Arab spring. After all, that's where the rogue park rangers are hanging out. I don't throw around the term savior lightly; however, there are so many things and people that save us. Most of us have a lot of saviors in our lives.

At the end of the day, the one I recognize as the Savior was the most unlikely of all, poor Middle Eastern refugee executed by the state that he was. Jesus' unlikeliness gives me even more hope in other unlikely saviors. I'm one of the people who doesn't believe you have to work at following Jesus in order to make the things Jesus would want to happen, happen. (And yes, I also believe in cooperation with the divine will as a foundation of my faith.)

And perhaps the reason I am most hopeful is because the work that is beginning is hopeful. It is especially hopeful that we can and will sway the course of history toward the better. It is hopeful that it will not take violence to do it. It is hopeful that indeed, we can stand firm against the forces of evil and that will be sufficient to triumph over them.

Today, my hope is in unlikely saviors.