Saturday, April 18, 2015

In Light (and Dark) of the Murrah Bombing

Taken on one of my many trips to the Bombing Memorial
Tomorrow Oklahoma pauses to reflect on a searing, scarring day for all of us. The day sin tried to win. The day murder and violence tried to steal our joy and purpose and routine. The day Timothy McVeigh pulled a truck loaded with explosives, parked it in front of a building filled with children and adults, and walked away as his anger blew up.

I sat in a basement room in my algebra class, seventh grade, 13 miles away. Several guys playing checkers said they watched the pieces rattle across the board. I didn't notice a thing. But within a couple of hours, we were all gathered, watching a television, worrying -- and, in a moment, aware of living in a much scarier world.

Most of us didn't leave the television for days. Some incredible people rushed to the site and jumped in. I remember watching as men and women scaled the gaping wound of the building, debris bleeding out, looking for survivors... and remains. I knew one victim, remotely, through a dear family member. I know one responder, one of the very first on the scene, who still carries the immutable, unspeakable horror. All of us do, to one degree or another.

Let's not pretend sin isn't real. My new found faith is soft, and warm, and joyful, and loving, but groundless if I can't acknowledge that in big and little ways we are capable of destroying each other.

This isn't a diatribe, or a rant against the evils of the world. This is a lament. And, a moment of clarity for me. Even 20 years later, I still approach this day with a familiar, deep ache.

I've been thinking a lot about sin lately. Such an ugly word. One I react to like a blow from a bat, before I even hear the context in which it's spoken. One I've heard used to create an impenetrable line between God's (self-selected) beloved, and whoever they can't imagine living life next to.

A concept I'm finally unafraid to address, because I can't pretend that even my "good enough" life doesn't cause, and participate in, harm.

Sin could have been the most unifying concept in the Christian faith (and possibly between faiths), if we hadn't used it to define and reject the other. We ALL break communion between each other, we all break communion with God. We all participate in power structures that abuse, whether overtly or not (think of choices to buy cheaper goods that come at a cost to the animals or humans at the bottom of the supply chain, tolerating corruption in our leaders, politically protecting our wallets instead of our fellows, refusing to acknowledge our privilege).

The ugliness of 20 years ago is extreme, and feels unforgivable. I'm not conflating the hidden sins of every day "good enough" lives with the instantaneous destruction of that one. Nor am I neglecting the shared brokenness of each. Each need the grace of a big God, and the effort of big-hearted humans to replace destruction for healing. Empathy for anger. Genuineness for cattiness. Prayer for vitriol. Imagination for scars.

These words don't remove the ache of the Murrah Bombing for me. But, in a strange sense, they give it motion. They remind me of the work to be done, bringing Kingdom Come. They cause me to make meaning of the reality that the peaceful, upside-down Kingdom of Jesus already existed that day.

They remind me to shine the light of a perfect, human-god life into my own, and examine the deep places where I don't root out the subtle and not-so-subtle sins that break me and break my relationships.

I hope I never lose the ache. I never stop grieving the lives lost. I never stop working against the brokenness that creates the vacuum filled with this violence. May we mourn tomorrow -- deeply, honestly, and filled with awareness.

May we mourn the lives. Mourn the lost sense of safety. Mourn the depth of human brokenness.

I pray, that by confronting the darkness head on like that, we will more clearly see the grace God fills us with, and express that grace with renewed hope and motivation.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Resurrected Ritual (delayed reflection on Good Friday)

Photo by  Rev. Amy Rogers:
We're interested in your reaction to how the cross frames the word Division.
I wore a cross around my neck for the first time in years this Holy Week. I wore it sincerely, honestly, and reflectively -- using it to remember how intertwined my living and breathing is with the Jesus story.

On Good Friday, I joined with several local clergy and a friend to walk the "stations of the cross" in our little downtown. We carried a birch cross with a crown of barbed wire before us, and each had a masonry nail, hot in our hands. Stopping at every cross-walk, we read a prayer, and reflected on Jesus' final steps toward death.

We looked like religious fanatics, I think. Which is funny, because I know how committed these clergy are to wide, inclusive grace, and how the most rigidly religious have excluded them from acceptance. I felt uncertain, and embarrassed by our appearance. Then, I remembered, "I believe this story. I believe in this man-god and his lonely, broken, disgraceful walk with the cross. I believe in his subversive way of living, and believe it led directly to this long walk." And, I asked if I could bear our little birch-wood, to remove more of the barriers my heart built between his journey and mine. 


The Oklahoma wind blew the red dirt between my teeth and into my eyes. And the workaday hum of life on brick streets kept us from communicating. With each step, and each new (nominal) discomfort, I buried myself a little deeper into his ultimate protest and victory against greed and sin and pride and corruption: the most loving act, the most deliberate walk, the truest self-giving in the history of godkind and mankind. I was uneasily conscious of living between my modern, busy, material day, and this powerful, but painful day when the hope of a few died, but set himself up to live forever as the hope of the world.   

My husband remarked today how striking it is that I'm engaging in so many religious behaviors, like wearing a cross, accepting ashes on my forehead, completing the Stations of the Cross, preaching, doing special observances. But, he said, he knows it's because for the first time, these stories and rituals mean something life and perspective changing for me.

He's right.

I'm so grateful for every painful step of this walk from darkness to doubt-infused-hope, or hope-infused-doubt -- regardless, a place where I have the life and love of Jesus to show me how to live in and love my world.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Upending Grace

 
Vignette
She was so old. And lovely. Her skin had that ivory, crepe paper transparency of very old and frail white women. Articulate. Intelligent. And, no longer in control of life's most personal functions. I spent about 20 minutes cleaning her, changing her gown and linens. She was mortified. "I am so sorry you have to do this," she said. I told her, "I know you don't want this. If Jesus could wash the feet of the disciples, it's my privilege to care for you." It seemed to calm her.

Vignette
Jesus stripped off his robe, clothed himself with a towel, and crouched down to wash the road weary feet of the disciples. Peter, perhaps used to the facelessness of a servant performing this function, found this too great an intimacy from the man he called master. Reading the passage through my biases and filters, his reaction feels like more than just attempted politeness. He seems truly uncomfortable with how this reverses roles, and upends norms. But Jesus tells him, "If you don't let me do this, you don't have a part of me."

Vignette
We went without steady, or much of any, income for nearly four months. We lost our savings, and my silly, but loved, little car. Needing the care of others in broken and vulnerable moments makes me intensely uncomfortable. I want to protest, and apologize, or worse, hide the mess in my heart, and pretend nothing hurts. I remember the night I made a conscious decision with my small group from church (aka the best group of friends I've ever known) to tear down the walls of pretense, share my tears, and practice lamentation. The woman sitting next to me lifted sad eyes to mine, reached over, and gave me a hug. The group joined in our suffering. They held together my messy heart, and for the first time in my life, I knew the full capacity of human grace.

Vignette
Recently, a dear friend received a gift in a sum she cannot hope to reciprocate. An amount that makes you question yourself, to be certain you never abuse the position you hold, or the words you share. A form of grace that upends roles and norms. The type of gift one will never find adequate thanks for. It struck me, in trying to help her experience this as an offering of love; sometimes humans deliver such a grace to us that we can never repay. One that mirrors the great, wide, incomparable grace God offers us. When our pride keeps us from experiencing the fullness of human grace, we miss the chance to see an earthy presentation of God's grace, and perhaps, we miss the opportunity to be spurred into such grace-giving to our human folk.

These graces all required an overwhelming intimacy. Jesus, on Holy Thursday, washing dirty feet, cleaning between dusty toes, demonstrates a collision point of supremely human and divinely godly action.

I was surprised to discover how uncomfortable others are with the idea of a foot-washing service at church. Perhaps, because intimacy has been such a key theme as I put our last few months into perspective, and because it characterizes the work that healthcare workers give every day. But then, I remembered how much work it took for me, just to talk about the depth of my confusion and emotional suffering with our closest friends.

I believe I absorbed a message at some point telling me I must appear whole, saved, in control. I internalized a notion that need undermined my lovableness, and ruined my exterior show of completeness, knowledge, and Christian privilege (in words of my former days, my "testimony"). I got so good at denying my humanity that I emotionally abandoned it. I locked it behind multiple doors in the house of my soul, and sealed myself off, not only from self-awareness, but from the ministering presence of other humans.

I was Peter, denying Jesus, or anyone, a chance to get close enough to leave a part of themselves on me, or take a part of me with them. 

It took years of therapy, and the last two years of un-learning god, and re-learning God, and the last year of learning about glorious, glorious humans, to jettison the pride and falsehood and sheer burden of being needless.

Maybe it's not a foot-washing at church for you. Maybe it's accepting charity. Maybe it's taking a meal. Or sharing a sin. Or an agony. Or a secret that undermines you every day. Or, maybe for you, opening up yourself to true human contact means receiving a compliment, or a condolence, without brushing it aside. Maybe, it's asking others to rejoice with you over the kind of thing that may seem mundane, but just makes your heart sing.

I'm convinced we see the face of God most fully, not in buildings, or nature, or religious experiences, but in the face of our fellow humans. I pray we open ourselves up, not just as givers as grace -- a lop-sided, power-sustaining notion of living, I think -- but as people in need of grace.

May you see God this week. May you open yourself to receive a grace you can't repay, and rather than it humiliating you, may you know, know, know, you're loved.

Friday, April 3, 2015

All the Lovely Shoes - and the last of this metaphor...

A Jason & Chesha Collaborative Production

The little pickup that could on its 1st archaeology adventure.
For those of you in agony over the cliff-hanger of our dramatic story lately (told in depth here & here), here's closure.

I got a job. Not just any job. The bestest, hardest work I've ever done. A job that allows me to synthesize my 13 years in the medical field, my training, my masters degree, my interests and passions into a new form of action and leadership. A job that surrounds me with men and women from whom I am already learning tremendously.

Jason stays home with Valentine -- taking over the shaping of her brilliant, adventurous mind. He hopes to keep up his archaeology skills, primarily through helping a good friend get his archy company off the ground.

We got a pickup to replace my beloved MINI. And, while I'm still warming up to it (Jason hasn't told me the gender yet), it has actually been very useful for our little family.

Today, we received our first paycheck in months (yay!), and we are both finding great satisfaction in our new roles.

Let me tell you what we've learned (this conversation is actually happening as the post unfolds, which is pretty cool to me):
  1. Both of us (worded by Jessica): People love is divine. Not in the sense of "Your coat is so diviiine, Dahling." In the sense that god shines and expresses god's self through the love of people. Needing that love and support at this undeniable level made us acutely aware of the gift that our favorite humans are to us.
  2. Jessica: While I still don't see God in every breath of wind, or turning leaf, or open parking spot, I can't deny the power of unusually aligned circumstances. We moved to our town in December. Jason lost his job in January. My position opened up, in our town (just 2 miles away), in January. The person who hired me for the job is the same person who hired me into healthcare in 2003. There are other occurrences and mysteries that I won't tell, because it feels like it cheapens them. But, even I can find a divine possibility in all this.
  3. Jason: Pride is a stumbling block that can keep us away from our resources. It was really difficult to sign up for unemployment, because of the stigmas. I thought I'd get work in no time, but it didn't pan out. Counting on a future that wasn't assured cost us a great deal of financial support we could have had if I'd been more honest with myself about our actual circumstances.
  4. Jessica's take on that: Same thing applies to relationships. When we are too proud to own our grief in front of our friends, we lose out on the benefit of the depth of their love.
  5. Jason: Endurance is key. It's not like a movie, where the difficulties are a short montage immediately followed by a heartwarming resolution in the next scene. It's a long slog with a much longer downward slope than you prepare for before you ever get to the slow upward climb.
  6. Jessica's take on that: This was one of those things that helped us find true friendship in our chaos. Some individuals were willing to wear sackcloth with us as long as it took. The human reaction to the suffering of others often skips to the happy ending. Some truly brave souls just joined with us, patiently watching this unfold over all these long weeks.
  7. Both of us: Oh. That's what those years of savings were for. :( We'd have been in the street without it, but it just hurts to say goodbye to all of that money.
  8. Jason: It could always be worse. It may be easier for me to accept that reality because I have family who have been in oppressive situations like invasion by foreign armies, ethnic cleansing by their own government. That helped me keep things in perspective. I still had days when I was really beaten up by it all, but it was easier for me to just keep on doing what was necessary to keep the lights on and heat running when I had that perspective in mind.
  9. Jessica: My husband's family is pretty kick-butt. You should read his grandpa's book. And meet his grandmother. And settle in for long, amazing stories.
Of course, all of this is still swirling in my head -- connecting to grace, and Holy Thursday, and the awesomeness of humanity, and learning to find hope, and myriad other things. Some posts are planned to deal with that, but hopefully, I've settled your curiosity. And, with luck, exhausted that silly shoe metaphor...

In the meantime: thank you all for your prayers, love, emails, texts, gifts, thoughts, presence, and general wonderfulness. You made this journey one of the most meaningful I've ever walked, and because of getting to learn you and your capacity to love better, I wouldn't take back a single moment of it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Of Pickups, Peace, & Palm Sunday

I need to share that any post I ever write is a collaborative effort -- often unbeknownst to my collaborators. Events of my week, conversations with friends, a word from my pastor, a road war with a fellow driver -- all plays in. The graduate student in me struggles against the instinct to cite every single phrase and nuance. Lucky me, to have so many wonderful opportunities to learn and grow.  

Hosanna! Our sweet kiddos processing with palms.
(photo by our youth minister, Hannah Lampi)
I made a triumphant entry into my old home town today. On my way to church, I got into a dogfight with a massive red pickup that wouldn't let me into traffic. I decided to engage in the power struggle, show him what a Honda CRV is made of, and pulled ahead of him just in time to make it onto the ramp. I came, I conquered, I acted like an ass. And, immediately felt ashamed.

You see, I had been pondering the first Palm Sunday all morning, preparing to deliver the welcome and opening prayer for services. I was thinking about this most publicly triumphant moment of Jesus' ministry, and how remarkably subversive and humble it was. How the Kingdom of God juxtaposes humility to pride, service to conquering, peace to war. How it makes room for humanity to collide with divinity, how it leaves space for grief in the midst of joy. It all seemed meaningless intellectual pursuit in the moment, as my neanderthal brain exerted itself over my spiritual thinking. I engaged in the same imperial, showy, forceful maneuvering -- a Roman procession with Pontius Pilate -- that Marcus Borg says was happening at the West gate of Jerusalem, just as Jesus entered the East gate with his rag-tag band of followers.

Doesn't life keep us honest, if we let it?

Jesus rode into Jerusalem, to fanfare, on a lowly donkey. Famed theologian Wikipedia tells me the donkey was a symbol of peace, while horses symbolized war and subjugation (Prophet Zechariah reinforces this interpretation in chapter 9 of his book). The gospels also tell us that Jesus paused to weep over Jerusalem as he entered.

All these seeming contradictions...

The crowds are celebrating, but in less than a week will be witness to, maybe even participants in, his death. The man is the source of great joy, but pauses to express grief. He's the King of the moment, but he rides in on a donkey colt.

Celebration is complex. We feel it most because we've experienced its opposite. Joy is highlighted because of the sadness we live through. The sting of pain throws the soothing power of grace into greater relief. The suffering brought about by corrupt kingdoms and regimes and religions heightens the hope of the pure, peaceful kingdom of God. The recognition of our sins enriches our gratitude and experience of forgiveness.

My pastor asked us today which procession we will join: the imperial, politically aggressive party on the West, or the band of underdogs, the subversives in the East.

As Christians, we are no longer the underdogs -- at least in America. We hold more power than the Jesus followers of the first Palm Sunday. As my pastor said, we hold the reins to the horses of war. And, that's a dangerous place to be. We risk becoming blind to the practice of violence, of experiencing the truth as a confrontation, and truth-revealers as political threats. It is harder to address our need of Jesus, and to recognize how his message and life embraced weakness, and undermined power. How he specifically questioned the "good enough" religious lives of his day, while hanging out with the "losers."

Jesus lived totally upside down to our expectations, to our American dreams, to our striving for triumph and success.

As we choose our procession, may we fully celebrate his arrival. Let's just party in it. But, not as champions, or conquerors, or victors. Rather, as recipients of grace. As extenders of grace. As people bereft of power, but willing to throw down whatever we have, palms, coats, blankets, hearts, souls, pride to pave the way for his upside down kingdom of peace and humility and grace. May we bravely confront oppression, wage peace, and, as he did, champion the people lost in the shuffle of power and living and sin.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Closet Full of Shoes (an update)

Remember when I told ya'll I was waiting for more shoes to drop (in a post cleverly title The Other Shoe, read here)? After the toddler's hand got burned, and the husband lost his job, the MINI got sold, etc ?

Yeah, we got a whole closet full of shoes now.

The next week Valentine developed double ear infections, days of fever, and tantrums that shook my confidence in this whole parenting gig. Who'm I kidding? They convinced me I couldn't parent. Jason got intensely sick, and we lost opportunities to take short term work... yada, yada, yada (even I'm getting bored with calamity).

The thing is: I wouldn't take a single day of this back. Even though the daughter is sick again, and we are dealing with some significant criticism.

Because, through all these experiences, we found the depth of our community's capacity to love and support to be endless.

Our small group elected to sit in concerned silence as I told them of my heartache, then we all laughed over silly things. Members of our church text us, just to check in. Friends send encouraging emails, or stop in parking lots and on porches for extended chats. My counselor smiled gently and listened hard. My mother took the baby for a night when I was hysterical and running on four days of sleeplessness. My family planned a night away for all us grown-ups to celebrate my dad, and just be together.

I always struggled with needing people. Hated it, really. I believed if I needed things, then people couldn't, or wouldn't, love me. Such faithlessness... These last couple of weeks have converted me to humans.

I know we're still capable of terrible, horrendous, destructive evil. But, in our situation, Jason and I have been slathered in the simplest, most wholesome, selfless good. And, I found myself actively thinking of how to be transparent about our needs during this time. As we work to build real relationships with our friends, I wanted to tell them specifically how we craved their love and support. 

So, it's Ash Wednesday. As I prepared to speak the introduction to our service, I stumbled across a photo of me receiving the imposition of ashes last year. It dawned on me that my new faith experienced a sort of birth in those ashes. I felt the stirring of my need. Need for community. For love. For faith. For the Jesus I'm still learning about.


I also encountered beautiful reflections on what this holy day can mean from my brother (see below), mother, a local minister (see below), a distant priest, friends. It struck me that Ash Wednesday and Lent are inextricably connected to our humanity. Not in a shameful, or guilt-ridden way. Just an honest evaluation of what it means to be human. We are mortal. We are temporal. We are broken at times, and at times we do the breaking.  We need.

We need the receiving and giving of love.
We need the receiving and giving of forgiveness.
We need the receiving and giving of God's grace.

We spend so much time running from this humanity, covering it with impenetrable shields of religion, or defense mechanisms, knowledge, apathy. We deny our needs.

When we take on the ashes, we wear our shared humanity on our face. We wear our need on our face. We wear our imperfection on our face. We wear it together, each facing the acknowledged humanity of our God-family.

These last 2.5 weeks have been serious wind up for the brutal honesty of Ash Wednesday. I had to wear my humanity in full view. My need. My agony. My joy in being loved. My craving for hope and appropriate moans of sympathy and empathy from trusted friends. My confusion about the role of God in all these circumstances.

The grace, and forgiveness, and human depth all this taught me makes every single moment of struggle valuable. It turns out, in facing my humanity, my need, and being met with the loving, if imperfect humanity, of others, a whole lot of God showed up.  I'm still working out how that happens, and will probably write through the discovery process.

Also, I really like shoes anyway, and we have a pretty serious collection started...

...

Reflections on Ash Wednesday

My brother George:

"In the hubbub where the pitiful congregate" - Jeff Tweedy
One of my favorite songwriters (probably unintentionally) doing ecclesial theology. Ash Wednesday may be one of the more readily identifiable times that we have set aside to acknowledge that when we congregate, we do so as pitiful creatures. Strivings for wholeness and impenetrability burn away, leaving ashes and dust. O, the beautiful hubbub that ensues when we admit this together.

From Mike DeMoss, a Methodist pastor in my town:

Ever since I knelt before 10 year old Emily several years ago, she tracing a cross on my forehead with her ashen tinged finger and tender mercy, words like repentance, discipline, and renewal, now speak to me, in a deeply personal way, of a grace peculiar to Ash Wednesday. It is the grace of the possibility of a different direction, a new path, or perhaps, an old path recognized with new clarity. It is perhaps for this reason - the beckoning of that new way - the Ash Wednesday service is not among the most well attended. And yet...could it be possible that, as these ashes, still warm from this morning's burning of last year's palms, burn a mark on our hearts that will last long after the dust has settled?

My (abbreviated) intro to services tonight:
...And at the end of this solemn season of self-reflection and honesty we are faced with the ultimate hope: Our God is a God of life. Our God makes all things new and creates new paths. Resurrection is coming.

By participating in this season of Lent the sweetness, the joy found in the work of Jesus is all the more powerful.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Service: Loving with the Gloves Off

Our church is doing a series of guided discussions right now on 5 commitments of membership: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, Witness. I'm delivering the homily on Service, and guiding the conversation as all of us teach each other what that means for our community. Pretty cool really -- this wild, participatory style of church. We're working hard to elevate each discussion above simplistic lectures like "give more," or "pray more."

I'm unabashedly biased in believing my nursing experience is the highest practice of service, because it demanded providing dignity and respect in the lowliest of work. (I respect your right to believe your calling is the highest form of service. In fact, I hope you feel that!)

When I think about service, this story from my practice floods my mind inescapably.

I cared almost daily for a man very ill with AIDS, as well as a handful of other chronic, fatal diseases. On top of that, he had a couple antibiotic resistant infections. Going into his room required dressing head to toe in protective gear. He was dying. He couldn't accept that. He was gay. He and his family wouldn't talk about that. His illnesses were taking him down an excruciating path, toward an excruciating death, and he was not equipped to face and plan for that.

My job was to help deal with the symptoms I could ease, and facilitate conversations to help him plan. I had a clear agenda. I wanted to help him face his reality, and in that process, alleviate some of the coming suffering.

Shortly before the end, I went in for yet another visit. Garbed in a garish yellow gown and blue rubber gloves, and all the defenses necessary for my other patients, but that felt like brick walls between him and me, I sat beside his bed.

It's strange to me now that I don't remember what we talked about. I tried to discuss death with him. He shut that down emphatically. Perhaps we talked about his loneliness. I remember him becoming more and more emotional. And it became clear to me that he needed touch. Not safe, clinical touch. Human touch.

I removed my gloves and grabbed his left hand in both of mine. Skin to skin. And, he cried. He said, "I don't remember the last time someone touched my skin."

...

We sat in that moment for a long time. My agenda abandoned, and perhaps a bit of my clinical distance and superiority, too, I knew to leave this experience just where it was for both of us.

It was messy for me. Not just because of the diseases, or the tubes, or the particular thick and pungent humanity that coats long-term hospital patients. Because I wanted to take this guy from denial to life- and death-changing courage, and I knew our limited time frame. Service, in this instance meant shelving my agenda, and sitting very still. And coming back, despite fruitless attempts, and despite my brain twitching to steer the conversation down a "useful" path, over and over again. I had to let him teach me how to be his caregiver.

Service is ongoing. Messy. Demands presence. Demands you be aware of your humanity, and the humanity of the person you serve. Service requires humility. True service removes the barriers that keep us feeling safe and clean and separate from the humans we serve with, and for.

Post Script: After the rich, rich discussion with my church today, I want to add some of what they shared on Service. Two insights struck me most. The first associated courage with service. It takes deep courage to abandon agendas. Lost agendas mean lost control. Lost control means the neat lines making me server and you servee fade. It takes courage to subvert your human propensity to judge, and replace it with acceptance and forgiveness.

The second insight bluntly raised the spectre of suffering -- calling out our tendency to serve until the Other's suffering gets too close, too real, too implacable. At that point we pull away. The man above was dying, in pain and alone. Nothing could change that. And, as often happens, these circumstances perpetuated themselves. Because, most of us don't know how to sit in another's suffering, so we shy away, or become cheerful and soulless. We put on bright protective gear and pretend things are really better.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus removes his clothes, wraps himself in a towel and washes the well-traveled feet of the disciples. He took off the layers, and the one layer he added became the tool of his Service. He told them he meant this for a clear example of how to live. I can't even imagine how the world would change if we lived this bravely. But I know the moments that have changed me most started with removing the outer robes of pretense, or knowledge, or self-sufficiency. These actions deepened my experiences of serving AND being served.