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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Prayer

It's been one of those seasons of life where one emerges later, a little dazed and confused, eventually settling in to normal, again. Or something like that. As the government shutdown continues, I've been thinking a lot about the pastoral prayer my congregation shared together on Christmas Eve. It seemed worth sharing even a few days after the Epiphany, because God knows these prayers have not been answered yet. 

One:    Holy God,
who chose to be among us rather than beyond us—

We pray differently this night, 
this night when we remember you came for each of us and all of us—

            We pray for those with a prophet’s voice, who remind us of your justice
Many: For William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign
One:    For the voices of Black Lives Matter and Me Too 
Many: For Millard and Linda Fuller and Habitat for Humanity
One:    For those like Margaret Sanger, who fight for equal rights for women
Many: For churches everywhere who provide more than seven billion dollars in aid in the United States alone

One:    We pray for the people whose story is like the story of the Holy Family 
Many: For the people who fled the violence of their homelands and wait at the border
One:    For the parents and children who wait apart from each other
Many: For the many who live with violence
            in Sudan, in Yemen, in Detroit, in St. Louis, in so many places near and far.
One:    For those who wonder if they could care for a child, those for whom hope and fear are intermingled
Many: For those who cannot find someone willing to make room for them

One:    We pray for our neighbors like the shepherds
Many: for those who work difficult, smelly jobs for too little pay
One:    for those who sleep in the cold, on the dirt, in the street
Many: for those who labor so others may eat
One:    for those who live close enough to the edge that angels find them
Many: for the people whose words we are never privileged enough to hear

One:    We pray for those who rule, as the Magi did 
Many: for those who make laws and decisions about healthcare
One:    for those who regulate and legislate our food
Many: for those who decide wages
One:    for those who determine the futures of the our LGBT friends and family
Many: for those who have people entrusted to their care.

One:    We pray in the hope of the Christ child
Who transformed the world by coming in vulnerability rather than power
            There is a light that shines in the darkness
Many: and the darkness could not overcome it.
            Let us walk in the Light. Amen. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Story from a Good Witch

We were tabling on behalf of the church at some community Halloween event. I don't remember which event, really, but remember that I was in a witch costume. It's still my go-to, making use of an old graduation gown. All I had to do was add a hat and some other accessories.

That night, a witch and a tourist sat together at the church's table, handing out candy and information. I also have a photo of the witch me with Jesus, just for fun, but I digress. As we were sitting there, I saw a little girl about seven talking with a woman I assume was her mom. Her mom was clearly encouraging the little girl to come over, presumably for candy.

Instead, when she was finally convinced to come over, she did so cautiously, and in her very polite seven year old voice asked, "Excuse me. Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"

It was not the question I was expecting, so I smiled warmly and answered, "Oh, I'm definitely a good witch!" I may have offered her some candy, but I don't remember. I have long remembered her question, though. Had I thought about it very much, of course I was going as an evil witch. My black hat and gown, my green skin, my green gloves that lengthened my fingers, and my pointy shoes all said evil witch. I was pretty much channeling Witch Hazel from Bugs Bunny or the Wicked Witch of the West. No pink-clad Glinda was in sight.

Of course, confronted with a curious seven year old, I responded that I was a good witch. More than that, though, I think about her mom, encouraging her daughter to be so brave. The little girl came up to me on her own. She asked her question all on her own. She overcame her fears of the witch to do all of those things. And when she happily ran back to her mom, she had learned that things weren't quite so scary as she imagined.

This week, neighbors have been attacked in so many ways. They have been killed for being black, for being Jewish, for being trans, for being Latinx, for just being. In light of this, I am even more mystified by this little girl who bothered to ask. She walked into her fear instead of away from it. When she did, she found something far different than she imagined.

I am reminded of Jesus' teaching that the Reign of God belongs to children just like these (Matthew 19:14). When preaching that passage, I most recently talked about the inherent vulnerability of children. Now, I'm thinking I should have talked about the bravery and curiosity of children. They learn something new every single day. They go into the world expecting something amazing. They ask questions because they're used to not understanding. When they are scared, we expect them to engage their fears rather than run away from them. We expect them to learn the world is not so scary a place after all.

How much better we'd be if we had the same expectations of adults.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Behind Closed Doors

I love the story of the hemorrhaging woman. It appears in all three synoptic Gospels, juxtaposed with the story of the healing of Jairus' daughter. In the story, Jesus is on his way in a crowded street, following Jairus, and the woman--we never know her name--comes up and touches his cloak. He feels the power go out of him, healing her of twelve years of nonstop menstrual bleeding. At least we think it's menstrual bleeding; of course, no biblical author would be quite so descriptive.

When I was a child, I heard the KJV: an "issue of blood." The language is antiquated now, except women's blood is still an issue that only gets talked about among women. The hearing going on right now, the reality of what happens when women speak out about sexual harassment and assault, has me thinking so much of the women's issues we talk about behind closed doors. "Mixed company" my mother would say. There are things we don't talk about in "mixed company."

The list is long, so very long, and crosses a wide stretch of biology: menstruation, childbearing, nursing, menopause, breast health, and of course, anything to do with sex. Yet, when the doors are closed, when it's women with other women, we talk. Women my age talk about contraception--all the time. It's one of the more universal subjects, actually, because it matters so deeply to us. What works? What doesn't? What tools do you use? I know the contraception choices of at least four other women who go to my hair salon; I don't know their names.

We keep each other company while nursing babies. Like many women, I choose seats close to women nursing in public, smile to show I'm safe, and help them hold a safe space for feeding their child.

Older women make mammogram and lunch plans together, keeping each other company through this odious task. It hasn't been that long ago that my friends and I conquered first pelvic exams the same way.

I am so aware of the world of women that happens behind closed doors.

Behind closed doors, we search out tampons for each other.
Behind closed doors, we help teenagers figure out all the ins and outs of menstruation.
Behind closed doors, we tell our stories of assault and harassment to one another--at least some of us do.
Behind closed doors, we devise plans to keep each other safe: public places for dates, escape plans for long-term relationships, well-timed phone calls with safe words.

There is so much that goes on behind closed doors.

And what I'm guessing many men don't know is that on the other side of those closed doors, there are often posters taped. They have help numbers for issues that disproportionately affect women: domestic abuse, human trafficking, and sexual assault. Bars have started posting lists of drinks you can order to ask for help. One drink means call me a cab; another means call the police. Things like that.

Great hope and great pain meet there, behind closed doors.

Here is a truth of the Gospel spoken through the hemorrhaging woman: women's issues are not to be locked behind closed doors. Her issues belong in the public square. And when they finally make it there, she is believed, healed, and the world is transformed.

May it one day be true.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Jealous of Resurrection

Some days, I am jealous of resurrection.

I'm the pastor who hates preaching on Easter. Mostly, I hate it because there's not much else to say about Easter. Some colleagues have said that we talk around it all year, so it's strange and difficult on the Sunday when we tell resurrection and resurrection only.

The story of resurrection is both terrible and beautiful. The most horrible lasts a few days, even an agonizing death only a few hours. Death's hopelessness lasts only a few hours more--three days is kind of pushing it actually. It's more like a day and a half, at least the way I count time. Friday night to Sunday morning bears little resemblance to Thursday night to Sunday night.

Either way, resurrection chases away hopelessness unexpectedly, wonderfully--and quickly.

I have never seen a resurrection so quick in real life. More painfully, I have rarely seen suffering so brief, so fleeting, so quickly reversed. Sure, the resurrected Christ bears the scars of suffering, but they are not the oozing raw of wounds that are hours old.

I am jealous of resurrection.

I know I'm dancing around the question of suffering--why and how and lack of God's intervention. More than that, I'm wondering about redemption. That's the part of resurrection that is most appealing to me: how God takes the terrible and transforms it into something beautiful, something beyond any expectation. I'm pretty good with evil existing, with our complicity in evil systems, with our creation of them to start with. Well, good is the wrong word--at least this is how I narrate evil. I'm far more worried about the evil we do together than the evil we do alone.

It's the timeline for resurrection that troubles me.

I just finished the most recent season of Orange Is the New Black. This season, unlike last season, ends with redemption--at least for some. The show is difficult, for sure, but hopeful. In the midst of violence, addiction, hopelessness, lost causes, broken relationships and every other heartache of prisoners, somehow, this is not the end. OITNB would scandalize many good Christians, in part because it does not attempt to hide brokenness. It amplifies the complexity of brokenness, in fact.

That's not clear until the final episode of this season. For twelve shows, I was wondering if this was just going to keep getting worse. The thirteenth episode is downloaded to watch again at the gym. Somehow, in the midst of so much that is terrible, there is overwhelming redemption. It is not that everything is right; it is the promise that it can be. Maybe you just have to make it through the twelve episodes before you see it.

I know the can be is Gospel. I know that's resurrection, redemption.

Still, I wonder how long. How long? How long?

How long before redemption?

I wish I knew. I do not, but I do trust that God does. As some rough political years roll on, I am jealous of resurrection. And I hold on to the hope that it is coming.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

July 24, 2018

July 24, 2018

I woke up early, sick to my stomach because I ate things I shouldn't of the night before. I stayed up and wrote a sermon.

I ate a late breakfast, watched some TV, took a shower, and headed to Costco. 

On Sunday, I'd received an email asking for goods to be donated to help families being reunified following separation under Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy. On Sunday afternoon, I sent out an email to the congregation asking for water, pads, stuffed animals, snacks, backpacks and a few other things. We needed them all by Tuesday night. With the limited time frame, several people sent money instead of dropping off goods. I was headed to Costco to spend that money on what was needed. 

I put giants boxes of Always brand pads in my cart, along with boxes of trail mix and boxes of granola bars. I went to the back of the store to get water, but settled on Gatorade instead. I don't get stomach bugs often, so it was not too long ago that I found out that Gatorade can be a magical elixir. It seemed that people recently released from detention might need that magical elixir, even if it was much more expensive. 

I checked out and went on my way. As I was walking out of the doors, my phone rang. A colleague in Tucson was calling. Were we doing anything? They money donated for immediate needs. Could we get stuff there? I told her I would gladly turn around and buy more supplies if she told me how much. I hadn't been able to find my Costco card before leaving home, so I went back for a temporary one a second time. I grabbed a cart a second time. I bought nuts instead of trail mix this time, but still pads, Gatorade, and granola bars. I loaded these items into my car.

I called my partner as I left the parking lot to tell him it was a good thing I'd gotten his car instead of my much smaller one. When I got to the church, I unloaded so that everything could be better reloaded later. I added to the stash of what was already waiting in the classroom.  

Then, I called my contact at the social service agency to confirm a drop-off time and see if any needs had changed. The needs had, in fact, changed some. The families had requested Bibles in Spanish, men's deodorant, a broader assortment of hygiene items, and shoelaces for kids and adults. Detention, after all, is a form of jail. Of course, the officers took everyone's shoelaces, even the kids'. 

I sat at my desk and cried. The horror settled in. My government, my neighbors see these kids and their parents as dangerous enough to lock them up, even taking away their shoelaces. I'd always assumed that when someone was released, whatever items were taken were returned to them. Apparently, this is not true. These kids and their parents need shoelaces. 

Sometimes, we count atrocities in both humanizing and terrifying ways. I've never been able to shake the sight of the piles of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Now, I'm wondering, where are there piles of shoelaces? Can they be counted? What is done with them? Who keeps them? Who notices the workboot laces and purple sparkles of children's laces in the same bins? Where are all of those shoelaces now? Somewhere, there are thousands of shoelaces. Somewhere, there is this tangible record of this horror unfolding on our borders. I wonder who is bearing witness to these piles of shoelaces.

Time ran slowly for a while. I sat, shocked by the weight of the terrible. I know my horror pales in comparison to what my neighbors are going through. I cannot imagine what it is like to have your life fall apart so completely that you must ask neighbors for shoelaces. 

I cannot forget those shoelaces. I imagine that from now on, every time I touch shoelaces, I will remember this day. 

More friends and colleagues donated money that afternoon. I stopped to get food for myself at the grocery store because my packed lunch was insufficient. Deodorant was on sale, as were school supplies, so I gathered up backpacks and deodorant, $90 worth. When I got to the register, I stumbled into a sale, so it was only $65. I was in a hurry, needing to be back at work, so I didn't go back for more. 

Back at church, I unlocked the doors. Friends I had not seen in quite some time brought supplies. Another friend and I sorted through donations, getting them ready to go. At 7, I loaded my car. For some unknown reason, I reserved this task for myself, wanting to somehow count, know what was loaded. 

Having money left from donations and some more thrown in over the course of the afternoon, I stopped at Target and bought every single pair of shoelaces I could find that might possibly be of use. They only had laces for men's shoes, but I bought them. Workboot laces and sneaker laces and dress shoe laces. Seventeen pairs. The total was within 20¢ of the money I had left. I added the shoelaces to everything else and went home, so very tired. 

Once upon a time, I would have said exhausted. That is not true. I was very tired. I was not exhausted. People who need shoelaces are exhausted, not me, who curled up in bed and watched a movie before drifting off to sleep, safe and secure in my own home.  

May God have mercy on our neighbors who need shoelaces. I don't know how to ask for God's mercy for the rest of us.