Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Threats We Ignore

As a horror movie lover, it is a strange thing to be in the midst of a pandemic. It's pretty clear that while this novel coronavirus creates a serious disease, it's not a thing of science fiction. I stopped at Target today to get contact lens solution and was met with sections of empty shelves where there was once hand sanitizer and wipes and toilet paper.

I'm a data junkie, so we could talk for a long time about the impact of COVID-19. What is most concerning to me, though, is our panic at this and how readily we ignore other things that are far more threatening. Climate change, for example, will actually kill a large chunk of humanity in the not too distant future. The great migrations we are seeing are one significant effect of climate change.

COVID-19 will likely illuminate how broken our healthcare system already is. Plenty of people already know it. We already know paid time off is precious and rare. We already know many hourly workers can't afford to miss work. We already know our systems do not care for people well. I wonder if we realize how this is slowly killing us all.

In the Phoenix metro area, hospitals are already at capacity, having nothing to do with a new threat. Most of the hospitals are at or near capacity January through March. In a fiscal year that begins in July, these same hospitals do not enter the black until January or later. Winter visitors push our healthcare system over capacity, while it is so under capacity in the summer months that it doesn't expand sufficiently. I went to visit someone in the hospital less than a week ago and that hospital had patients waiting in hallways in the ER because they were at capacity. The patient was in observation, the current location of overflow for admitted patients. A volunteer helped me find the patient because the room was in such an obscure location.

When I moved to Arizona, I got a rash that no one could figure out. I went to urgent care, than a primary care office, then to a dermatologist. I made it to the dermatologist by April. They could get me in the same week, but told me that two months earlier, the first appointment would also have been in April. Often, I have had to wait weeks for a specialist appointment, with a nice relief from the wait during the summer months.

I could go on about the limits of health insurance, the fact that Marketplace insurance is functionally Medicaid when accessing care. The list is long. But when a new virus reveals our vulnerabilities, we have an opportunity to realize we were deeply vulnerable all along.

When this is over, what will we do to address those threats that we ignore day in and day out? Our answer to that question matters for the good of humanity.

And in the meantime, wash your hands.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Stories We Tell

Last night, I watched Disney's Robin Hood. We're talking the 1973 animated bunnies and foxes version, out of the vault because of Disney's new streaming service, not an adultier version. It was one of my favorites as a child, and I was home alone, so no one could object. I was not prepared for Robin Hood to launch political angst. Again, I watched the animated version with bunnies and foxes.

Yet, the villain hit a little too close to home. He's Prince John, made ruler of the land by deceit. The rightful King Richard is off fighting in the Crusades. He exploits the people through high taxes that buy them nothing; failure to pay lands them in jail. Prince John fills his coffers ever fuller and so enter Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. The scruffy lion version of Prince John is petulant most of the time. One of the movie's songs about him proclaims, "He throws an angry tantrum if he cannot have his way."

It reflected American politics a little too closely. Of course, it was easier in the cartoon version. There is a clear rightful ruler there, one who is good and benevolent. When he shows up, he returns wealth to the people, pardons Robin Hood for illegally doing the same, and imprisons the corrupt rulers. But here I set, knowing I'm in a country with a president elected because of Russian tampering with the election. I've read articles calling for a return to paper ballots in the last week because of this tampering.

The temper tantrums are frequent and public, thrown on Twitter and on camera. This same president passed a tax plan that literally takes money from the lowest earning populations and gives it to the wealthy. I just wish we had someone as effective as organizing a response as Robin Hood was.

And somehow, we've missed it. Or forgotten. Or something. Robin Hood is a deeply embedded story that has been around for centuries. Most people in the US would know something about the good guy who robs from the rich to give to the poor. The connection to our reality isn't even a big leap. It's a puddle jump at best. Yet, we've gotten ourselves into this mess and can't see a clear way out.

Maybe even more shocking is that my reaction was much the same when seeing a live production of A Christmas Carol a couple years ago. There was no subtlety in Dickens' story of a rich man exploiting a poor one, even cutting off access to healthcare. It's also one of the stories that is part of our culture. It's a Wonderful Life is surely another. How many stories of deadly dragons hoarding wealth do we have? Smaug isn't the only one by a long shot. I'm guessing someone better versed in pop culture could rattle off a dozen movies that remind us how bad it is to be a rich being who hoards wealth.

We don't even have to get to the Gospels, presumably also a deep part of our cultural story. There, Jesus said things like "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." The man goes away grieving, because he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)

Jesus follows it up with, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24) Plenty of commentary tries to work around this strange, impossible saying. It's pretty helpful at face value. Rich is bad; it means you are hoarding resources beyond what you and your family could ever use. That's not what money is for.

If you've made it to my blog, you probably already know this. If you're offended I likened President Trump to Prince John, go watch the movie and then let's talk. Here's the thing I really want though: tell these stories. There's a whole realm of political discourse that won't get us anywhere, or at least we can't start there. We've proven that time and time again. We can start with the stories we know. We can start we the stories we learned as children, and the stories we tell our children. We can tell these stories more. We can remind adults of them. We can sit and ask why on earth acceptable for Jeff Bezos to be allowed to hoard wealth when refusing to pay workers' a living wage or provide benefits when Prince John is the hated bad guy.

For those of us who have been shaped by the Gospel, it's easier to see. But we can take this one bit of Gospel to the world in so many ways--and starving for these stories.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

That's Going to End Poorly

A couple of Sundays ago, one of our kids threw her brother's shoe up on the roof. If I had to guess, I think she learned a few weeks earlier about the ladder leading to the roof and curiosity got the better of her. She really wanted to go up on the roof. Obviously, throwing her brother's shoe up there meant a trip to roof for someone; she was working to tag along.

Well, it didn't go quite as she planned. By the time the shoe was on the room, all the people who know how to access the roof had gone home. (This is one of the bits of information that I choose not to know, in part because it is a straight ladder leading to a hatch that grants access. I learned in barn lofts long ago that I hate climbing straight ladders.) So her brother hopped to the car on his one shod foot. Not surprisingly, he had on his more functional pair of shoes, so getting the one from the roof was critical. I promised to work on getting the shoe down.

I texted one of the people who could easily climb up on the roof, asking his mercy in retrieving the shoe. He stopped by later that afternoon, and the shoe made its way back to its owner. I was very glad that I knew the person who retrieved it would at worst roll his eyes at the kid and likely laugh at the whole thing very soon.

When the following Sunday she came to apologize to me for the trouble she caused, I bent down and told her, "If you want to go on the roof, ask. It's much better than losing a shoe." She was sheepish, to say the least. And yet, I also have put out a request to see if a children's field trip to the roof could be a reality. It's a flat roof with a wall around it, about as safe a version of a roof as possible.

Some of that request is shaped the the profundity of the Lunar Baboon cartoon posted here. I generally find the comic pretty wonderful. But I am especially intrigued by this one. I can't help but think that we don't know what comes next, for the church or this child. We can make guesses though. A nine year old wanting to go to the roof now can lead to annoying circumstances for sure. But in the not too distant future, we could be really glad for a sixteen year old gladly venturing to the roof. Someone has to venture up there occasionally now; those someones could be really glad for someone younger to go up on the roof in another seven years.

Church is most always about playing the long game. It may be the only institution that welcomes people cradle to grave--and blesses both. We keep reminding people to practice Sabbath in a world driven by productivity. The Church doesn't ask you to go and serve at the food pantry in December because it's the holiday season; the Church asks you to go and serve at the food pantry in July when they're desperate for volunteers and December when they need someone there who knows the routine. And the Church asks you to do that this year, and next year, and the year after that. Asks is probably the wrong word. The Church echoes the voice of Jesus, reminding you to remember and care for the vulnerable. It's always there, calling back to something else.

So many things begin poorly that don't end up that way. The story of our faith is one of things beginning not so great with that whole donkey/manger bit and ending even worse if you stop too soon. That Saturday spent sure that Jesus was really most sincerely dead is a terrible ending; you just have to stick with it for the something better.

May we hope in things that begin poorly, because the truth is, only God knows how they're actually going to end.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Some Early Christmas

On Christmas Eve this year, I will preach a sermon I have preached at least a couple other times. (If you'll be there, maybe stop reading now.) 

This year has been a dumpster fire for the world at large and a trash can fire for me personally. I think this presidency has turned into a straight up landfill fire at this point; I really can't stay engaged in the full news cycle for my own sanity and well-being. I took a deeper dive today and need a strong drink, an intense workout, a long hot shower, or something else I can't imagine. 

And because of all of that, here is the sermon I will preach in another week:

In the year that Jesus was born, there was a revolt in Germania, now southern Europe, that had to be quelled by Roman governors. The Kingdom of Aksum was founded in what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia, one of the greater trading nations. In modern day Georgia, Arkshak II, the king of Ibera died, as did Amanishakheto, the queen of Nubia which occupied Kush, Egypt and Sudan. 

In the year that Jesus was born, Rome executed several of its leaders for treason against the Empire, will completing a major aqueduct as well. One of the most accurate censuses in Chinese history was completed. While we hear of the terror of King Herod in the biblical story, Caligula was not the far away, the blood thirsty Roman emperor whose reign was far more terrifying than anything Herod imagined. 

In the world where Jesus was born, political boundaries were shifting daily. With those shifts came all the danger and uproar one would expect. 

In the Roman Empire into which Jesus was born, people moved to cities looking for work and often ended up homeless when work was not there. Slaves were often the people used for menial labor. Conquest mean that the skilled work of teachers, architects and doctors was also done by slaves. Ordinary citizens ended up with no work. 

Rome itself was home to some of the first tenements, poorly built apartments that could and did easily burn down. The poorest people rented the homes highest up with the least access to amenities. Many of those people paid rent daily because they were so poor they literally lived day to day. 

Into that world, Jesus was born. Into that chaos, a savior came. 

When God chose to be made flesh and dwell among us, it was in all that messiness. The absurdity of the incarnation remains: how could God make that choice in that chaos? How could God look at all the mess and say, "I need to be even more a part of that."

So we tell that story on this night--a story that is anything but perfect with a very pregnant woman making a long journey and finding no good place to rest. A story with her giving birth with no midwife to help. A story with only a feedbox for a bed for the baby, something worse for the parents. A story where smelly shepherds are the only other people celebrating the child's arrival. A story that turns quickly into them fleeing the country, becoming refugees in Egypt. 

And still we tell the story to remember the deepest truths of our faith: there is beauty in the midst of horror, truth in the midst of lies, love in the midst of hate, and light in the midst of darkness. 

God shows up, no matter what. 

Celebrate. Rejoice. The Christ Child is born. 

Here is to the hope of this season that transcends the raging dumpster fire. 

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?