Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Clothes of "Me, Too"

Over the weekend, my partner and I were doing some cleaning out of things that never quite got cleaned out when we moved. You know what I mean. There are the couple of boxes where you just dumped everything when you had no clue what box it should go in. There's the stuff kept for sentimental reasons that, in the right mindset, can be called junk and tossed.

And then there are the clothes.

Like many, many people, I own a range of clothing sizes. Let's not talk about the weight range they encompass, please. There's the lose 10 pounds box, and the lose 20 pounds box, stepping down quite a way. There's the dream box with about five articles of clothing in it from that three months I was that size. If I hadn't gotten the flu, I'm pretty sure I'd have never been that small.

When we moved, we took many boxes to Goodwill. Unpacking in the new place still made it clear how very, very many clothes I own. We pulled out all the clothes boxes over the weekend, and I gleaned two more IKEA bags to get out of our spare bedroom.

Some of the clothes were more worn out than I'd remembered. Some were more out of style than I remembered. Three of the items were tossed because I'd been sexually harassed while wearing them. Wait, on second thought, maybe I should count it as four. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Me, Too on the blog for the local conference of the United Church of Christ, especially naming how rampant sexual harassment is in the church. For some women, Me, Too is triggering, bringing up many terrible and traumatic memories. For others, like me, it has erased some of the guilt and shame. Let's be honest, it's not just Me, Too. It's years of conversation about the harassment women experience just for existing.

My partner was in the room when I pulled out the gray striped sweater I had been wearing for the worst incident. A married pastor later told me how attractive I was when wearing that sweater, along with plenty of other inappropriate things. I turned to my partner, "This was the shirt I was wearing when I was sexually harassed. I should get rid of it, right?" I asked. Of course he said yes. If the memory clings after five, six, maybe even seven years, that seems the better thing to do. It's become clearer after the fact that incident was worse than I knew at the time.

I also got rid of the pink shirt I was wearing when a young man struggling with his life made unwanted sexual advances. I was in the back parking lot of the church, doing something or other for the church where I was a youth and children's minister. He'd been attending on and off for a few weeks. In a space where I've always been told I should be exceptionally nice and welcome, I had no idea how to stop him. It was church, so being rude was not an option--at least not then.

I long ago got rid of the skirt I was wearing when a seminary classmate ran his hand up my thigh and wouldn't stop when I told him to. I so love the dress I was wearing when he thought it appropriate to toss small objects between my breasts that I kept that. This time, I got rid of the not so liked dress where he did the same. I also got rid of the shirt I was wearing the day he made it clear he wanted to do all of those things.

The "What Were You Wearing" exhibit pops into my mind as I reflect on these clothes. Maybe these clothes matter so much because I've been told they do--as if clothing invites a certain kind of touch. It might be my particular sort of memory, too, that I can picture each incident with alarming clarity.

As more and more stories about sexual harassment and assault surface, there seems to be a glimmer of hope that the tide is changing. I have this deep, abiding hope that the church, groaning with age and girth, moves, too. After all, complicity is one of the church's greatest sins in many things, including harassment of women.

I don't have much to say in the way of Jesus things about this particular topic, so here's what I do know. As a pastor, I hold people's secrets and their confidences. I use two words with intention. Confidences are things that need to be held--often until they're ready to be revealed. The most joyous of those confidences are about pregnancies, still too tenuous to be shared with many. Secrets, though, are darker, more sinister. They are the things that must not be spoken because of guilt and shame. They carry great weight and it seems there is nothing that can relieve that weight.

Totally out of context and not well-exegeted at all, I still think of this passage whenever I learn a new secret, "Nothing is hidden that won't be revealed, and nothing is secret that won't be brought out into the open. Therefore, whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and whatever you have whispered in rooms deep inside the house will be announced from the rooftops." (Luke 12:2-3)

It's an alarming promise if there's a secret you desperately want kept.

It's an amazing promise if the Reign of God means the guilt and shame around those secrets dissipates so that they can be spoken aloud.

For everyone who can say, "Me, too," may their secrets be turned to justice.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why We Won't Create an Active Shooter Protocol

I never thought I'd be looking forward to preaching on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (or Virgins, depending on your translation). There's a lot that's unappealing in it, including that half the women are shut out of the banquet because they left to get oil. The parable is one in a succession of stories pointing to the impending end of the way things are.

Of course, what ushers in the end is the coming of the Reign of God. That is the thing the hearers of the parable are called to await: urgently, expectantly, hopefully. What would you do if you thought God's Reign might come crashing in at any moment?

In the wake of another church shooting, I am certain of only one thing: we are preparing for the Reign of God. Anything else is a distraction from our calling.

Quite bluntly, that means we are not called to prepare for someone bursting in with a gun. Be prepared for fire, sure, and flood--the things over which we have no control. Be prepared with a plan to keep kids safe in your churches. Be prepared for everything except that which is heartbreakingly preventable.

You see, that's always the truth about gun violence: it is preventable. It was preventable on Sunday in Texas. It was preventable at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. It was preventable in Newtown, Connecticut and Blacksburg, Virginia. It was preventable in 1993 in Grayson, Kentucky, when the deaths there hit very close to home for me.

Preparing for the violence instead of working against the violence is wrong. That is a response of fear, and fear alone. It is a recoil inward to the worst parts of ourselves. If we make that choice, we sacrifice our resurrection hope at the altar of security.

Most terrifying of all, creating any version of an active shooter protocol is accepting this is the new normal. It follows that if this is the new normal, then we must adapt. In doing so, we surrender any claim to the Kingdom of God we have.

I realize at this moment church councils are wondering if they should figure out how to answer, "What if?" I realize at this moment other church councils are congratulating themselves for already having armed guards on campus or policies already in place. With words I rarely choose: that is sin--full of sin, from beginning to end.

You who seek the Reign of God, reject this version of normal. Reject any possibility that we adapt to this. Reject the fear that cries out gun ownership is necessary.

Follow the call of the Kingdom, instead. Demand justice. Demand justice from lawmakers. Demand that it be harder to obtain a gun than be licensed to drive a car. Demand that domestic violence be treated with the gravity it deserves. Demand that white men be held accountable for their actions.

This is your call.

By all means, run. Run fast and hard. Run headlong into the Reign of God. Run with perseverance this race. Keep watch faithfully at every single moment for what God is doing. Let the Spirit be your guide. Let fear crumple with the shadow of death. For the sake of this call, though, don't update your policy manuals.

Instead, be ready for the Kingdom of God. The gates might be flung open at any moment.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

When She's No Saint

As always, Halloween overshadows All Saints' Day. I'm sure many kids are ricocheting from last night's candy. Still, I love this day. My congregation will celebrate All Saints' Day on Sunday. The particular way we celebrate is decidedly Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church reserves November 2 for All Souls' Day, remembering all who have died. All Saints' is reserved for named saints, those who have achieved the beatific vision.

Long before I was a pastor, Protestants collapsed the two into one day on November 1st, when we remember all who have died. We especially remember those who have died within the last year.

This year, two of my aunts have died. Well, one aunt and one woman who was for all intents and purposes my aunt. She was married to my uncle at one point, I think, and they have a son my age. She's been around all my life. So has the wife before her, the only one with whom he had two children. Yes, you may have guess that he's that uncle.

The other aunt is the one who is the squeaky clean, played piano in church aunt. The skeletons are well hidden in her closet; not so with the other one.

My partner gets very confused when we talk about this branch of my family tree. The years of brokenness pile up to form my knowledge; my mother has told me the portions that extend beyond my memory. There's no way he could grasp the full brokenness. I don't know that I can either.

Because the truth is, it's overwhelming. The parsing of it all would take pages upon pages. If I were to write about it, would I begin with addiction that carried on to the next generation? Or prostitution to support that addiction? Would I talk about cancer caused by those choices? Maybe it's the pieces I've collected to realize that cousin who is my age was born addicted to something. He suffered a stroke last year resulting from his own drug habit; I'm told he can now walk pretty well.

There are all sorts of places in those stories that something could have helped--mental health services or effective drug treatment programs. Maybe foster care and the agency running it could have broken the pattern if those systems were better.

Not surprisingly, we weren't close, this sometimes aunt and me. I've looked for her obituary over the last few days, but haven't located it yet. She requested to be cremated and no funeral, so there's no rush on an obituary. I had to spend some time figuring out her last name in order to search. Many broken relationships, including at least two marriages, are part of her story. Although she was living with my uncle when she died, that was not the name she'd most recently chosen.

Her story is not unique. My story on the other side isn't either. I've sat with more people than I care to count who are worried about their children or their cousins or their parents. They don't know how their loved ended up where they did; it's a painfully common story.

On this All Saint's Day, I remember well the phrase, "She's no saint." Of course, it may also be, "He's no saint." Either way, it's shorthand for someone who has made a series of bad choices, creating their own problems. The clich├ęs are many. Maybe someone is reaping what they sowed. Or maybe the made their bed and now they have to lie in it. There are more ways than there should be to condemn someone.

Many people would say of my aunt, "She's no saint." I'm guessing they'd be right. I know far too much and I'm guessing it's the tip of the iceberg. In some ways, I barely knew her. The things I do know mean there has to be far more.

Still, she is a saint.

That is the deepest promise of All Saints' Day. She, too, is a saint. She, too, is beloved by God. She, in all her brokenness, will be welcomed by God. The many afflictions of her life will not follow her into death. Somehow, all of the terrible will be better.

"...for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Revelation 7:17)

Blessings upon all the saints, both known and unknown.