Thursday, December 17, 2015

Still Waiting...

Here's some information you can mock me for later: I get a little annoyed when people wish me a Merry Christmas. Christmas is still eight days away. Eight. Whole. Days. Away. I know I'm in the 1% of the population that believes this, but by golly, I'm going to stick by it. 

I dream of throwing actual Christmas parties during the Twelve Days of Christmas. If I ever have kids, we'll do very cool things for those twelve days and dedicate ourselves to a time of preparation for the Christ Child in Advent. (I also have visions of taking children to volunteer at a women's shelter every Wednesday and, when asked why, they joyously proclaim, "On Wednesdays, we fight the patriarchy!" I'm aware I may have some skewed perceptions of reality.) If I get around to sending Christmas cards this year, they will arrive after December 25th. Again, I'm aware I'm giving you information which can be used for mocking at a later time. 

In the calls to worship that I wrote for Advent, though, I reminded people to wait a little longer for all the trappings of Christmas: shepherds, stars in the sky, magi journeying from afar, mangers, and inns with no vacancy. We name the things that are broken in response--and it wasn't hard to come up with a list. Last week, when I wrote, I named the kids for whom I bought presents and the IHELP guests who slept in our church. 

This week, though, I was reminded still more of how much we need the Christ child. I talked with a man who told me about his call to be a monk, "If I am assassinated for this work, it is only me. I have no wife or children." He's a Sufi monk, to be precise. I'm proud that when he told me he was a dervish, I did not start singing, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" (Seriously, remember, "she could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl!") The work he was talking about? Peace. Nonviolence. Telling people at every chance he can that most Muslims want peace, that ISIS is not Islam. 

I also have a nasty ear infection this week, resulting in two trips to Urgent Care. During the first trip, I spent quite a while in the waiting room. While I was there, one of the elderly women came in and asked about cost, saying plenty loud for me to hear even with my quite infected ear, "I don't have insurance." The staff responded with costs, which were a minimum of $135 if you're curious. The response from the young man at the desk when she said she'd have to come back made it clear they got this question often, "Need to think about it for a while?" She responded in the affirmative. 

So let's wait a little longer. Let's wait a little longer to proclaim, "Peace on earth." Let's wait a little longer to shout, "The Christ Child is born!" Let's wait a little longer to announce, "God has drawn near."

Let's wait, for so many of our neighbors are still waiting for the kingdom to come. Let us wait together.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Frilly Socks

I like the healing stories in the Bible best of all. The people around me who get nervous about miracle stories just love this about me. That's just fine with me. I don't actually think that Jesus had to perform a miracle in order for the story about Jesus performing the miracle to be transformative. That, however, is another day's writing.

I like the stories because of what they don't say. In pretty much every case, be it the blind man, or the paralyzed man, or the man with the withered hand, it's a story of economic security. The feeding stories aren't that. The feeding stories are very much, "Here's your daily bread." And that's good.

But healing someone meant that person could work and support themselves. It meant they could earn a living that was better than begging. Work that can support and sustain a person and their family mattered then as much as it does now. It's also a very different vision of how the world's economics should work than the way they do.

Last Sunday morning, I didn't hit snooze on my alarm clock. There were people waiting on me to bring them breakfast. Well, at least if they were going to have breakfast, it was because I was taking it to them. I got out of my cozy, comfortable bed and stopped at the grocery store. I picked up three boxes of instant oatmeal packets in different flavors. I remembered paper bowls. I got the raspberries that were on sale and some bananas, too, to top the oatmeal. I've heard people like fruit on their oatmeal, although it sounds terrible to me. I was proud of myself for thinking of an easy, hot breakfast for the sixteen homeless guests in my church.

My living room is full of all sorts of things right now. I cleaned last weekend. I put up the tree. I decorated a bit. Then nothing. Now, there are an assortment of empty boxes from recent online shopping, the contents of those boxes, and an even larger assortment of shopping bags. The bags mostly aren't for my friends and family. They're Christmas gifts for a family my boyfriend and I were matched with through a local agency. (Most people would say we "adopted" them for Christmas; I'm heeding my friends' words who remind me that adoption is permanent, and what makes a family for many people.)

We managed to get most of the things requested, both needs and wants. It broke my heart that one of the household requests was for a broom and dustpan. The most expensive broom and dustpan at Target was $13. I don't even know what to do with that sort of request. The $13 one was large enough that we opted for the $11 set instead. It's in my living room, along with a set of sheets, a blanket, towels, washcloths, and a set of pots and pans. Another bag holds pants, shirts, socks, underwear and assorted Frozen toys for a six year old girl. Another bag holds jeans, shirts, Nike socks, a video game and controller for the fourteen year old boy. He wanted Nike socks, quite specifically. She wanted frilly socks, so yes, hers are frilly. I'm quite proud of couponing skills that stretched money into that many gifts.

Both those things, for all the good they do, are a band-aid. I've guilt and anger over these two things in one weekend, things that made me feel good but didn't fix the problem. I am glad there was hot breakfast on Sunday. I am glad there was a hot dinner the night before and a safe place for our neighbors to sleep. I am glad there's a grandmother raising her grandchildren who will have gifts for their home.

Something is desperately wrong, though, if we think people sleeping in churches and getting names of kids from agencies is what should happen. This isn't healing. This isn't restoration. This is managing a broken system. Our neighbors should be able to eat hot oatmeal in their pajamas in a comfortable, safe home of their own. Many of the men and women sleeping in my church have jobs. Some have college degrees. They still don't earn enough to live. I can't shake my worry that the people raising and loving the children should be picking out frilly socks and video games on holidays and special occasions.

We need healing, not of physical maladies, but of broken economics. As I wrap packages to give as we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, I am reminded how much we need that child, who promised something better.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My Muslim Neighbors

Her name was Amira. She was a confident, poised high school student. My favorite memory of her is the night I was at their potluck dinner as they broke the day's fast together during Ramadan--now nearly 10 years ago. She understood what my US palate would prefer more than anyone else in her family. Maybe it was her duty as the daughter of the mosque's president, but either way, she guided me with skill through a sea of beautiful, completely unfamiliar food.

We passed the baby over the half door into the men's portion of their masjid. She was chubby, laughing, and delightful. Prayers for the day were over; her father wanted to show her off to the other men gathered for worship. I remained on the other side of the door, chatting with women who were almost all doctors. At that time, I couldn't answer their questions well: when do Christians fast? Do you know we know about Mary, too? One woman was wonderfully shocked at the bustier shaped purses popular at the time. She was the one whose final words were, "Tell them we are not terrorists."

Mirwaiz and Taneem sat in my apartment, eating cake. Another time, they were there to carve pumpkins. My roommate's birthday was on Halloween. The couple across the hall had a 4 year old boy. I was the only person from the U.S. there. I would surely know how to carve pumpkins. Little did they know that my family opted for painting pumpkins instead. Still, we gather with cake, pumpkins, and knives, eventually producing a few jack-o-lanterns. I worried about them at the long winter break. These two men from Afghanistan had few possessions in their student housing apartment; they could not go home to visit their families for fear of not getting back into the country. Did I mention they were also doctors? They were working on a Masters of Public Health, hoping to help build an infrastructure when they returned to their country.

I laughed at myself when I met an Imam here, one who later came and preached at my church. I know some Muslim men do not touch women who are not part of their immediate family, especially if they are married. I don't want to seem rude, but I never assume a handshake. This man certainly did not care, and bought me delicious food. I'm a sucker for Middle Eastern food. Or Mediterranean. Whatever you want to call it. If there's baba ghanouj, falafel, and baklava, I'm in.

The restaurant owner spoke to me on the way out of her restaurant, eyeing the small box in my hand. "Baklava?" she asked. "Yes," I answered. "Good girl."

Only a few weeks ago, Hanan and Asna sat in my office, as we talk about the way my congregation could help to welcome refugees who are fleeing to Phoenix. Asna's daughter came, too, having a day off school. She's not the first six-year-old I've seen who loved her jewelry and glittery things.

These are my neighbors. In particular, these are my Muslim neighbors. In every instance, they have made me feel welcome and safe. I hope I did the same for them. I know one thing is true: any time I invite them into my church, I take extra care to make sure they know they will be safe. I wish that I didn't know they might not feel safe, or that they might worry about what will be said to them.

These are my neighbors whose faith is different my own. They have always honored me and my faith, trusting that somehow that binds us together more fully, not less.

I am angry at a media that mentions when someone shooting others is Muslim but is silent when they are Christian. I am angry that we think more guns in the right hands is the answer, which seems to mean those hands are white and Christian. I am angry by the phrase "Muslim Terrorist." I am angry by more media attention given when a shooter is Muslim. I am angry that we are all complicit in feeding that behavior. Even as I write, I wonder if angry is the right word. I am sad. I am heartbroken. I am worried. Perhaps I am only angry about the ignorance.

And please, can't we be kinder to my neighbors?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

We Are All Living with AIDS

A great uncle of mine passed away a couple of weeks ago. He and his wife were always vaguely part of my life, in and out at various times. They sent cards at graduations but didn't show up at birthday parties. They were family, but more distant family. Because he was around all my life, I didn't think much about his disability. I don't know that I would have ever asked what was wrong with him. My mother just mentioned in passing one day, "Haven't you ever noticed he almost touches the ground every time he takes a step?"

I knew what she meant. He had a strange gait, dipping down significantly with each step. Yes, his hand could have easily brushed the ground had he tried. He'd had polio as a child; this was the lasting effect. I never got any more details.

That great uncle was born in 1920, though, so it shouldn't really be a surprise that he would have polio. It wasn't eradicated in the US until 1979 and is still a threat in other countries. Still, for all intents and purposes, in 1984 I was born into a world without polio. In another country, that wouldn't have been true. However, it was true for my world, my childhood, my schools. No one worried that a sneeze or unwashed hand would transmit a disease that could leave a limb nearly useless. Actually, the interwebs was required to even find out how polio is transmitted.

By contrast, I have always lived in a world with AIDS. Somehow, even in conservative rural Kentucky, AIDS was covered in my elementary school education. Everyone knew how it was transmitted. Of course, no one talked much about what the "sexually" part of sexually transmitted meant. Still, the mystery was limited to origin, not transmission. Blood and sex, that much we knew.

Treatments were more in development than wonderfully effective. It was always there, though, that knowledge of AIDS and HIV as the virus that causes AIDS. People talked about it directly in TV shows and roundabout ways in country songs. Strangely, given everything I know now, I never thought of AIDS as affecting a particular group of people. (That could say an entirely different thing about my education.) I only learned that AIDS had once been known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) from an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Still, on World AIDS Day, I'm always reminded that this is the disease that has come with caution and worry in my lifetime. I am glad to know, firsthand, that diseases that once came with caution and worry no longer do--at least not for me, in my part of the world. Other scary things are gone from every place: smallpox, for example, eradicated in 1977.

I remember the stories of paralyzed men let down through roofs to Jesus. I remember lepers and blind men, outcasts of all sorts, crying out from the sides of roads. I remember a friend who died with AIDS. I remember others diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. But most of all, I remember hope: what was is no longer; what is does not have to be this way. Because that is the story of the leper, the blind man, the paralyzed man, and so many others.

Let us hope more fully.