Palms

I have had a couple of really interesting and divergent thoughts about palms this week. To me, they have only ever been symbolic of two things: Palm Sunday hosannas and the beach.

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This morning was all about the palms of Holy Week. Our Sunday morning service started outside with (mostly) children waving palm fronds up in the air. There was the annual whispered warning from parents that palms fronds are not swords – although as the story of Holy Week unfolds we find that, indeed, they are. Palms held up in praise and welcome are soon fists in the air. While you are marching in the Palm Sunday parade, it is easy to get caught up in the celebration; but before you know it you end up at the courthouse calling for blood.

A pile of palms

And then there is this: Before Holy Week even started, I had become part of a discussion about palms in a completely different context. With a group of women – half of us Muslim, half Christian – I have been  learning about Mary/Maryam in the Quran. The mother of Jesus is highly revered in Islam and is, in fact, the only woman referred to by name in that holy book.

When she gives birth to Jesus, Maryam is under a date palm tree. It turns out that in Islam and in Arabic/desert culture, the date palm is considered a very special plant. My friends in the group explained that date palms are thought to be more like humans than any other plant. Not only are the trees differentiated as male and female, the “baby” trees are sort of born from the mother. Here is a photo of a little palm pup:

Mother and Child

Growers (and legend) say that the baby palms must stay near the mother tree for 6 to 8 years or they will die. (I looked it up online – it is true!) The fruit of the date palm contains a number of essential nutrients and is eaten to break fasting during Ramadan, and many of my study companions gave a taste of date to their newborn children even before giving them milk.

These images have been swirling in my mind as I try to reconcile them into a single metaphorical holy image. That hasn’t happened. But I know that the crowd that raised palms for Jesus came from a culture in which the palm was highly symbolic for multiple reasons – all of them in some way affirming of life, victory, peace, and hospitality. Under the shadow of this symbol a most horrific act of betrayal occurred on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Learning about Maryam and date palms gave me a little comfort for the hard week ahead. In the Quran, palms provided Mary shelter and nourishment as she gave birth alone in the desert, and I think of her keeping the treasured child close until he is old enough to be planted in his own soil. It is a very feminine metaphor for the divine. This week, I imagine God is holding Mary close as she stands at the foot of another tree watching her son suffer and die. Birth, life, death, renewal. Fruit from the same tree.

Maryam

Persian Mary and Jesus

Yesterday, I met with an interfaith group of women–half Muslim and half Christian– to study Mary/Maryam in the Quran. My participation came as kind of a fluke – another woman in the group had to drop out, so a friend invited me to fill in. But it touches so many things I am interested in that I could not resist. And, you know, Mary. I need no other reason.

I knew that Mary was important in Islam, but our first meeting reminded me just how much. (It’s been more than 20 years since my class with Lamin Sanneh. Mea culpa for forgetting so much!) She is not only the mother of Jesus – a major prophet in Islam – but the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Quran.

Each woman introduced herself to the group by saying what they most admired about Mary, each coming from her own tradition and life experience. Without exception, the Muslim women cited Mary’s chastity and strength as her most admirable qualities. The Christian women had a bit more variety, but tended more towards strength, bravery, and loyalty. Our inspiration is most certainly rooted in our own scriptural traditions.

The stories about Mary have common elements in Islam and Christianity, but they are not the same. Already some differences in belief and tradition are surprising us. Mary lived in the Temple? And gave birth under a date palm tree? Say what?! No, she was a poor woman from a backwater town. And she married a guy named Joseph. Really! You can read what the Quran and the New Testament report about Mary pretty easily on the Internet. But what you won’t get are the individual expressions – verbal and facial expressions – as women meeting face-to-face try to articulate just what it is about Mary that stays with us.

Over the coming weeks, we will read some passages from the Quran and discuss their significance, as well as share our various beliefs about Mary. Those traditions are quite different in some respects, and yet there is something about this long-ago Mary that catches our attention and keeps it. She accepts the unexpected–a pregnancy, a miraculous child, a public life — with grace. Can’t wait to learn more.

The Cost of Discipleship in 21st Century America

There has been a political movement lately claiming to protect religious freedom by allowing people of particular faith traditions to withhold professional, secular services from members of the public if doing so would offend their religious sensibilities. By and large, these efforts are driven by conservative Christians who are trying to maintain an ability to keep their secular professional status quo by making members of the public seek services or employment elsewhere. For instance, some employers want to be exempted from providing adequate health care coverage for employees because some of the covered medical services, such as birth control and abortion, offend them.  Bakers in Arizona and Kansas are lobbying to keep their businesses in tact without having to serve homosexual couples because they oppose marriage equality.

In the halls of government and on the Internet, these issues are being debated as a conflict between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination. One way or the other, the courts will settle the issues and articulate an interpretation of the Constitutions – US and states –that allow all of us to move forward with a somewhat more settled common expectation of what is acceptable and what is not.

As a person of faith, however, my concern is not for the legal ramifications of this struggle, but for the spiritual ones. What impact will it have on our faith communities if we expect the law not only to protect our freedom of religion, but also to have others pay the price for us to exercise it

In 1937, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, which describes the dangers of “cheap grace,” or the situation in which the church promises believers grace, forgiveness, and sacraments without requiring anything from them. No repentance or discipline or obedience. No discipleship. The epitome of this phenomenon was the sale of indulgencies in Medieval Europe. An indulgence was an exemption from punishment/penance for some types of sin and in late Medieval Europe they could be bought by the wealthy as a type of “sin insurance” or extracted by greedy pardoners or rulers to pay for projects. (Indulgences are not my area of expertise, so pardon me if this definition is a little off. Pun intended.) But Bonheoffer also saw signs of cheap grace in his own day – especially among churches that had been taken over by Nazi sympathizers and conflated political and religious loyalty.

We can see similar examples of cheap grace in our own day. But now, instead of paying for grace out of their own pockets, we see people expecting others to pay that price for them. It is not enough for them to have a personal religious conviction against gay marriage or birth control or a particular government program, they want to ask their customers or patients or other taxpayers to pay the price so that these religious believers don’t have to alter their lives in any way.

Money…or grace?

Now, as a Christian, I can only speak for my own faith tradition, but I have scoured the Bible and can find no instance in which Jesus promised his followers they’d get to keep their job or keep all their money as a benefit of discipleship. In fact, his first followers actually gave up their jobs to follow him. And he famously told a rich man he’d have to give up all he had to gain eternal life. We can argue about how the Constitution balances your right to pursue happiness with your freedom of religion, but there is no argument about how Jesus saw that balance. Discipleship is costly; you will have to give up everything. No one else can take that obligation for you; you must do it yourself.

There have been people throughout the ages who have made these costly sacrifices to honor their faith. Some who object to war on religious grounds will not only avoid military service, but earn low wages to avoid paying taxes that go to the military. People who believe they are obligated to strictly observe the Sabbath don’t ask the NFL to re-schedule games, they simply do not play college or professional sports.

If you are not willing to pay the price of discipleship yourself, it is hypocritical to ask others to make that sacrifice for you – especially since you would almost always be asking it of someone who does not share your particular religious conviction. I am willing to believe that there are people of good will who oppose marriage equality, but Jesus never promised them they’d get to express that belief in a bakery or a photography studio. I know people who don’t think reproductive health coverage should be mandated for businesses, but denying that care is asking others to take the stand for you.

Grace is free – there is nothing you can do to earn it  – but it is not cheap. You can’t buy it and you certainly can’t rack up rewards by charging your beliefs to someone else’s credit card. It requires your own personal effort and sacrifice. Whatever the courts and legislatures decide, the church is in a terrible place if Christians think that the highest demand of their faith is holding others accountable.

 

Ode to my Breathe Right Strip

When January winds stir golden dust
Of cedars (really junipers) in the land,
My sinuses swell up with ev’ry gust,
Eyes are runny and tissues in both hands.

To ease the pain I’ll swallow any pill
Empty drug store shelves in desperation.
But Claritin, Zyrtec, and Bendryl
Fail to bring my symptoms to cessation.

And so, dear Breathe Right Strip, I turn to you
To save me from this annual nasal plight.
As air flows in, more so than hitherto,
I give thanks that you made me feel alright.

O, Breathe Right Strip! With you I can inhale!
I gasp, I gulp, so happy I could weep.
Over evil pollen I will prevail
And drift off into restorative sleep.

 

A guy I met

So, today I met a guy who had some things in common with me or people I know. It was not a comforting experience.

This guy was average height and weight. Polite and kind of quiet. He was disorganized, could not find the papers he needed in his messenger bag. Been there! (About 12 times a day, actually.)

Turns out, this guy also has some pretty common mental health problems. Nothing unusual – depression, anxiety. Been there. Do I know anyone who doesn’t have one or the other or both?

And, this guy has recently been hospitalized for his mental health problems. I’ve not had that experience, but I am close to people who have.

Here is where things get uncomfortable: this guy is homeless and penniless. When I met him, he was seeking help to get his prescriptions filled after just being released from the hospital. I started to imagine what the things we had in common would be like if I didn’t have regular health care, a family, a house. I started to imagine people I know who have been hospitalized going home with the meds they need to a safe home and a network of friends and family. And then I imagined them getting out and not having any of that.

There were other people I met today who were trying to get IDs to get a job, or asking for a new pair of shoes, or meeting with a caseworker. These are things that your homeless neighbors do when they are struggling against a mountain of obstacles to climb out of poverty. But what do you do when the urge to climb that mountain is overwhelmed by mental illness?

While I like to think that I can take care of myself, what separates me most from the guy I met today is not what I do to keep myself healthy and safe, but what others do to keep me that way. If I get sick, I have a spouse, a parent, and siblings who will care for me. If I am late getting home, there are a dozen neighbors I can count on to greet my kid at the bus stop. On the few occasions when I have been laid up, there were casseroles and offers to care for my kids and people to run errands and flowers.

Even the prayers I get via email and Facebook are more than this guy had. He was utterly alone, devastatingly poor, trying to manage his health with virtually no resources. And he knew it, was nervous about it. How would he get through today? He could barely hold a conversation for the dread.

There is no real way to wrap this post up with a nice lesson learned or happy ending. I don’t know how it ends and I am pretty sure I’ll see another version of it next week. But I do know that in this case, being grateful for what I have doesn’t make me feel any better. Being uncomfortable is appropriate response to what I know. I am grateful, but no matter how good I’ve got it, there are still too many people out there trying to get through a long, cold night alone in our big, crowded world. Surely, there is enough medicine and friendship and compassion and warmth to spare for them.

Grief

On the morning of New Years Eve, our dog Lucy died. It was not a surprise – she was fifteen and a half and had been very sick for a couple of months. Still, losing her was emotional for our family, each of us expressing grief in a different way.

My 12-year-old son is having a hard time. I remember dealing with death for the first time at about his age. He’s just old enough to really understand the permanence of it. He’ll go a whole day just fine and then break down crying the next. His 6 year-old sister wasn’t bothered by the news at all – which really irks him. How can she not understand?!

All of this is throwing me back to when my father died and the varied ways all his loved ones grieved. It is such an individual process, the way you grieve. My mother gave herself a strict routine and packed her schedule with activities – hiking, dance, university classes. I had a three-week old baby at the time and willingly went into denial for about 6 months just so that I could take care of her and get the sleep I needed. My son, the one who is grieving the loss of his dog now, missed his Pops, but was mostly affected by how emotional I was. At first, he was really scared to see me so upset. Even my father’s dog grieved; his scent was still in the house and she kept waiting for him to come home – even stopped eating for a while.

It is a cliche, but life’s losses are what give it meaning. Our loved ones are all the more dear to us because we know we have a limited time with them. I know that my son will understand this as he gets older and experiences more loss. But for now, it is just a huge, unfair feeling in his gut.

There is a stretch of road on the way to my house that I drive nearly every day. For the past four days, as I’ve headed home, I imagine Lucy racing alongside my car. She loved to run – there is a path worn into our lawn from her high-spirited circuits around the house. Even as an older dog with arthritis, she would outpace younger dogs. Now, she is forever running in my memory, running home.

Guadalupe

Maryology has been pretty Mary-free lately (other than me, of course) but there can be no better occasion to Mary-up than today. December 12 is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe – and on Sunday we remember Mary-the-about-to-be-mother-of-Jesus’ reaction to being told she was pregnant.

What I love about these two visions of Mary is how bold she is. Most of the time, Mary is a quiet statue or painting humbly gazing at the ground. But how did she react at probably the most overwhelming moment of her life? She burst into song! How did she reveal herself to Juan Diego? With out-of-season flowers that made an ornate portrait of her on his cloak.

Virgin of Guadalupe

I’m telling you, this woman is no wallflower. She is flamboyantly faithful and ostentatiously gracious. Which saint appears on more tattoos than Mary? None.

Today, I induct the Virgin of Guadalupe into the Hall of Marys. She’ll be there with Mary of Nazareth, which might be confusing for mere mortals, but I think they will figure it out. Our Lady of Guadalupe has her own amazing place in the life and culture of Mexico and the American Southwest – she is a cultural and religious unifier and, to some, a feminist symbol of power. She is simultaneously plain and radiant, simple and complex, gentle and strong.

She’s not gazing at the ground, she is standing on the moon looking at you. Ave.

The wreath that took a week

Some years, Christmas preparations are more of a struggle than other years. Maybe you put off shopping and miss the shipping deadlines. Or you wait too long to get a tree and all that’s left are the Charlie Brown specials. Of course, there is always at least one year when everyone gets a bad flu. That can make things a little rough.

For us, the trouble started right off the bat with the Advent wreath. We had the greenery, ribbons, and sparkly ornaments. My daughter was excited to put it all together. The project was started and then…the first holiday tantrum.

Wreath making halted; wreath maker was sent to Siberia.

Two days later we tried again. The stupid ribbons would not tie right and the stupid ornaments wouldn’t do what she wanted…AHHHHHHH! The candles are crooked. What is wrong with them?! Back to Siberia. It seems that Advent is, indeed, a penitential season.

Today, the 7th day of Advent, the wreath was finally finished, and not a shouted or sarcastic word was uttered. There is even a pile of extra materials to make a fairy house. An Advent miracle.

The wreath that took a week.

 

Darkness

 

There is a theme that comes up in a lot of Advent and end of year reflections: darkness. Sure enough, here in the northern hemisphere, the days are shorter and darker now. That makes darkness a great metaphor as we prepare for Christmas – Jesus as a light in the darkness, we who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.

A lot of times darkness is a metaphor for ignorance, evil, sin, or death. It is a state from which we must be saved.

But I have been thinking about darkness another way. You know who lives is darkness? Fetuses in the womb. And you know what they are doing in the darkness? Growing and preparing to enter a light-filled world. (Even after they are born their pediatricians will tell you they grow while they are sleeping!)

Light – actual and metaphorical – is good. But we all grew in darkness, it was the only way we got ready for the world of sun and incandescent and fire light we all live in. This got me wondering if seasons of metaphorical darkness might be times of growth as well. What do you think?