Theophany

The burning bush. Was it supernatural vandalism? Or holy art?
The bush was green again in the end.
But once you’ve seen those flames,
Your attention cannot be un-grabbed.
It makes you wonder about the way things ought to be and look and feel.
You will keep looking for beauty in unexpected places.
And the unexpected in beautiful places.

 

The 99

Today, the Gospel reading was the parable of the lost sheep. Of course, it is also the parable of the 99 left behind. Poor sheep. Either lost of left.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
Luke 15:4

Or maybe there is another way to see it.

Sheep are meant to be in flocks, not alone. When one goes wandering, it needs finding and a shepherd will go looking. But a lost sheep isn’t home until it is back with its flock. Back with the 99 who stayed. They weren’t left, they were being the flock so the lost one would know where home was.

I was with my flock today. My tribe, my peeps. I hope if I ever go wandering, I’ll know I am found when I am back with them again. And I also hope when anyone else wanders in, they will know they are home. No matter which sheep you are in this tale, you are essential to the whole, made to be with your flock, your tribe, your community. It’s not the same without you.

Shadows and soil

Some of the stones in this old cemetery have names and dates,
others are rendered anonymous by time.
Anonymous to me, but not to those who placed them
or to the oaks and vines that grow from the soil enriched by the stories buried there.
Walking along the weedy paths
we cast shadows on the stones and earth,
on the wood and grass.
Those buried here can tell just as much about us from our shadows
as we can tell about them from the life that springs from their graves.
Together, we make a full story of beginnings and endings, life and death
and all that connects us to each other.

Grounded

This morning, my daughter and I went on a morning hike. It was glorious. Several women, a couple of girls, and the best dog in the world (sorry Max) walked on a portion of the greenbelt that snakes its way through the western side of our city. Water was coursing through what had been a dry creek bed last summer.

Those of us over…well, let’s say over 5 feet tall…reminded ourselves to breath deeply and be mindful. Halfway down the trail, we stopped for some meditation that helped us feel connected to the earth beneath our feet, to feel supported and grounded in nature, to let the air cleanse us. The lush green trees and flowing water called our attention away from cell phones and the sounds of traffic just a few feet away.

During the hike itself, my daughter was mostly engaged and excited, but she rolled her eyes each time one of us reminded the others to breathe. Our mid-hike, mountain-pose breathing meditations were too still for her. I started to get frustrated…

But you know what, my daughter didn’t need these reminders to connect with nature. She is literally closer to the earth than I – by about 12 inches. At the start of our adventure, she made friends with a millipede, put it on a stick and brought it along on the hike. She is the one who encouraged us to wade in the creek, to feel the cool water and the stones under our feet, to let the minnows tickle our toes.

Legs the Millipede, our hiking companion

We are made from earth, every cell and the space between them. At every age we have ways of remembering that connection. For those of us with busy, indoor lives and lots of lists, it takes a hike and a reminder to breathe. Some see nature as a place filled with friends like millipedes, others see it as a wonder of mathematical beauty or principles. Farmers and gardeners have a different relationship to the earth than pilots and sailors. We  each help the others see a different facet of our earthiness. One day, my daughter will need a reminder to breathe, and a child will remind her to make friends with a millipede.

Remains of the Day

Today, the fates granted me four uninterrupted hours with my teenage son. If you don’t have a teenage son, you might think this is no big deal. You would be wrong. Usually, he is either away with friends or behind a closed door. To have him in my immediate presence and speaking to me is a miracle.

Here is how it all went down, in case any of you want to try it yourselves.

The Set Up:
For most of the past week, my son spent time with 3 to 12 (the number changed hourly) of his nearest and dearest friends doing Spring Break things. Then, two days ago, for reasons that only another parent can understand and which would require a complete blog post of its own, he sprayed air freshener all over his hands and arms. One day later, his arms began to itch. Two days later, with a weekend looming and arms still itching, he agreed to see a doctor. This whole thing should take 90 minutes, tops.

The First Hour:
As I filled out forms at the doctor’s office, Teenage Son asked if I could take him to a friend’s house after the appointment. Sure, no problem. He ate two lollypops and texted his friends, was in constant communication with them the entire time. (Note this for later ironic twist.) Once in the exam room, he explained the origin story of the itch, at which point the medical assistant turned to me and said, “Kids.” We left for the drug store to pick up a prescription. “Then you can take me to Friend #1′s house?” Yes, sure.

The Second Hour:
At the drug store, Teenage Son picked out one candy bar, a packet of gum, a King Sized package of Reece’s Sticks, and a self-inflating whoopee cushion while we waited. After 20 minutes, we were told that this particular pharmacy was completely out of the medication we needed. So we purchased Teenage Son’s merchandise and headed to the next closest store. In between texts with his friends, Teenage Son tossed the partially-eaten Reece’s into my cup holder and said, “Here, Mom.” And he was shocked – SHOCKED – when I rolled my eyes. “Why would you do that, Mom?! I got that to share with you. Geez.” So I thanked him for sharing the candy I bought him. We picked up the prescription at drug store #2 and headed back toward Friend #1′s house. “No, no, no! We need to go to Friend #2′s house! No one is at Friend #1′s house yet. They are at Friend #2′s house.” Still texting the whole time.

The Third Hour:
We drove to Friend #2′s house. No one was there. (What was the point of all that texting over the past 2 hours? Insert irony here.) Where were they? At a Starbuck’s. Which one? (more texting) Downtown. No. “What?! What am I supposed to do?” I pulled over and played on my phone until he figured it out. After 10 minutes, the Texting Teens decide he should go ahead to Friend #1′s house after all because that is where they are going from Starbuck’s. They were leaving any second and would probably be there by the time we arrived.

The Fourth Hour:
Friend #1′s house was deserted. I discovered this after Teenage Son got out of the car and wandered aimlessly in the driveway. He was Not Happy when I refused to leave him there for goodness knows how long. “Why, Mom?! Who does that?! What kind of parent are you?” Would he get back in the car if I agreed to take him for a snack? Sure, but they will be back any minute so hurry. One double-cheeseburger, fries, and a root beer later, we were back at the driveway of Friend #1. Waiting. For half an hour. Then a car arrived, unloaded four gangly teenagers and my son was out of my car to join them faster than you can say Snap Chat. Not a word to me.

But we had four hours together! Uninterrupted. Sometimes with actual non-arguing conversation! He’s got food in his belly, less itchy arms, and a very annoying mom. I’ve got these remains of our day…

Fossil record of four hours with my Teenage Son

Learning to take things more personally

My daughter is in the 3rd grade so I know a lot of 8 and 9-year-olds. They are silly and creative, loving and infuriating. They take in the world around them and make it all personal. Sometimes we call this tendency self-centeredness, but it is the age-appropriate way children experience and relate to the world around them. The weather is personal because it can cancel a field trip. (It did.) Traffic is personal because it makes a commute long and boring. (All the time.) Chocolate milk is amazing because it is delicious…and also stupid for sloshing onto a shirt. (Yep. Stupid.) My daughter has a love-hate relationship with water that is directly proportional to whether I am asking her to take a shower. The tendency of water to make a person wet is very personal.
Kids this age convey heartbreak more clearly and dramatically than adults. Sometimes it comes across as a tantrum that needs calming, but sometimes it comes across as a wake-up call. Their reactions can tell us that the things we take for granted as background noise are deeply personal.
Yesterday, my daughter told me this: “Mommy, don’t vote for Trump. My friend said if he is president she will have to leave because she is not the right religion, her religion is from another country.”
The xenophobic rhetoric of this election season has become so heated and so infused into everyday conversation that this child’s life is in suspension.
We are better than this.
It is a tribute to this girl’s parents that she feels acceptable and loved by her community. But that doesn’t make it better.
Here is the kicker: this girl’s parents are legal immigrants and the family is not Muslim. Messages aimed at illegal immigrants from Mexico and adherents to Islam have now bled beyond those targets to all those who are “other” in our communities. This girl is not wrong to think she is the target of the fear and hatred she overhears in everyday political discourse – the target has grown to envelope her. And now, it has grown to include my white, Christian daughter as well.
That is what fear and hatred do, they are contagious. We can’t just blame them on a few narrow-minded people, because if fear and hatred are not checked they spread. I’m taking a cue from my favorite 3rd graders. I am taking this personally. Fear and hatred are not background noise; they target and harm real people that I know and love.
Calling out fear and hatred is age-appropriate for everyone. Make it personal, y’all.

Mansplaining Jesus

Sermon preached at Christ Chapel, Seminary of the Southwest
Mark 6:1-6
February 3, 2016

Open our ears, O Lord,
to hear your word and know your voice.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills,
that we may serve you today and always. Amen

I have a love/hate relationship with today’s Gospel reading.

On the one hand, it is a great “epiphany” story that shows us one way Jesus revealed himself and his mission. It shows him returning home in a position of authority and facing a tough audience. And then when Plan A doesn’t go well, he gets entrepreneurial with his ministry and implements Plan B. “Then he went about among the villages teaching.” He took his disciples and his good news out to the rest of the world…

On the other hand, this story is also revealing about the people who “know Jesus best,” the people who saw him grow from a boy to a man, who know his family and the kind of work he does. Sometimes, this story is called “The Rejection of Jesus in Nazareth.” To me it feels a little different from rejection.

Jesus’ hometown friends and relations are not rejecting his ideas, the content of his preaching. They don’t even outright send him packing. What they do instead is dismiss him, cut him down to size, put him in his place. They are condescending to him.

*****

Now, there is a lot that might make a seminarian like me feel right at home with Jesus in this story. After all, I will be an inheritor of the itinerant ministry he started after this hometown debacle. Like the original disciples, we modern day disciples follow Jesus into places where his message might get a hostile – or at least dubious – reception. We are armed with authority to preach. And like them, we will very likely have to be ready with a Plan B and a Plan C, because in the church today, Plan A is already not working as well as it should.

Like Jesus’ disciples, we are sent from here and from our home parishes to take the Good News to communities of strangers, new parishes, new towns, perhaps even new states. We won’t be going back to the places that know us best.

So, there is a lot here to identify with. A lot that might validate us as followers of Jesus who are active in the church and know a lot more about him than your average person on the street.

I really love the story for all of that. It makes me feel inspired and relieved to know that Jesus and his disciples took this message out into the big scary world, to new people, to strangers.

*****

But I said I have a love/hate relationship with this story and here is the part that challenges me. That’s a nice way to put it. Here’s the part that rubs me the wrong way and makes me feel really uncomfortable:

If Jesus has a hometown in the 21st Century, with friends and relations who “know him better than your average person on the street” – it is the church. And maybe even worse, it might be a seminary like this one. Who thinks they know Jesus better than we do? Who knows more about authority in the church, knows who can and should teach?

How often do we, and the church as a whole, say things like…
-      You don’t have the authority to say that.
-      We don’t do it that way here.
-      In Nazareth they said: “Where did this man get all this?”
-      “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”
-      In the South, we might simply say, “Bless her heart.”

If this story makes me want to identify with the disciples who followed Jesus home and were willing to follow him out to the villages. It also makes me admit that I am like some of those hometown folks, at least sometimes.

*****

One of the humbling things about the Incarnation is that in Jesus, God assumes all of human experience, even the most painful, humiliating parts of it. And with the reaction he gets in Nazareth, the painful human experience I see Jesus enduring is that he is being mansplained.

I am betting that many of you know what mansplaining is – and have even experienced it yourself. But if you are lucky enough not to know, here is a definition:

Mansplaining is explaining something to someone – usually a man explaining to a woman – in a condescending and patronizing way. And it is explaining something without regard for the fact that the one being explained to knows more about the subject that the explainer.

(If you have never been mansplained, I bet you might have been teensplained. Or toddler-splained. For many of us, it is part of the human condition.)

Writer Rebecca Solnit – who is one of the people credited with first articulating this phenomenon – says that mansplaining comes from a sense of both overconfidence and cluelessness. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me, documents a fabulous case in which, after introducing herself as the author of a book about high-speed motion photography and technology in late 19th C. America (which is a pretty niche subject) her new acquaintance interrupted her and began holding forth on the topic himself, telling her she really should read a definitive new book on the subject. The book she herself had written. And told him about.

This is a pretty much how the synagogue in Nazareth treated Jesus when he taught them. The hometown folks in Nazareth are both overconfident and clueless, they think they know who he is and what he is capable of, and so they have limited what they are willing to hear from him.

When we identify with the disciples and Jesus in this story, it is because we’ve been dismissed and put down, too. People who know what to expect of us don’t want to hear or see anything else.

But we also do it to others. Individually and collectively as the church, we dismiss people – not because of what they say, but because of who we think they are. We do it to individuals and to whole communities. Dismiss them. Reject their preaching. Condescend to their witness. Refuse to see Christ in them.

We do a lot of ‘splaining in the church. We ‘splain to women. And to various ethnic groups. We ‘splain to people whose “way of being” in the world doesn’t give them authority to teach us because they are poor or gay or deaf or carpenters. We ‘splain to youth a lot.

There is a lot of fret in the church about America becoming a nation of unbelievers, that in the realm of religious belief, the “nones” (those with no particular religious affiliation) are the fastest growing segment of the population. But one lesson in today’s story is that it might not be “nones” who are the most resistant and unwelcoming to Jesus’ and his disciples– it might be the people who claim to be the closest, it might be hometown folks. Like us.

The Gospel says Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.” That is, he was amazed at the unbelief of a congregation of believers. Their unbelief was not a matter of rejecting the content of Jesus’ message. Their unbelief was their inability to see or hear the message from a well-known but unexpected source.

-      “Where did this man get all this?”
-      “What is this ‘wisdom’ that has been given to HIM?”

There is a lot about Jesus and his ministry that is outside of what was expected. Familiar, but surprising. But the people in Nazareth could only see what they expected to see. Do we have the same problem? Do we “already know” what Jesus has to say about the problems we face every day? Do we really already know everything the teachings of our tradition?

For those of us inside the church, the disciples and the hometown folks (most of us are both) the challenge is to share the Good News in the villages outside our comfort zone. For those of us inside the church, the challenge is also to learn the Good News from people we think we know well – people who might surprise us if we’d let them.

And sometimes, the one who might surprise us the most is Jesus himself.

Amen.

Saint Brigid

Brigid – known also as Brigit, Bridget, Brid, Bride – is a patroness of Ireland, along with Patrick and Columba. Her life mirrors a huge cultural shift during the 5th and 6th Centuries, when Christianity was introduced to the pagan clans of Medieval Ireland.

There is a tale in which Brigid is asked by friends to visit a dying pagan chieftain. He was delirious in his illness and they hoped she could calm him. As she sat by his bedside, she picked up some rushes from the floor (common in those days to keep the room warm and clean) and started weaving them together into the shape of a cross. As she wove, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick man, who grew quiet and listened. Soon his fever broke. The story of love she told him, the Christian story, so captivated the chieftain, that he was baptized just before his death.

Brigid’s cross of rushes gently bent her natural surroundings into the shape of her faith – just as Brigid wove the people and culture of Ireland into a Christian people. Born to a pagan chieftain father and a Christian slave mother, Brigid’s family included the two communities that she bridged through her life and work, teaching pagan Ireland how to embrace a new faith, while keeping it’s unique cultural character.

Christianity came to Ireland, not through political power, but through individual acts of faith and storytelling by people on the underside of history. Born a slave, Brigid spent her life helping the poor. Many of the miracles attributed to her are tales of feeding the hungry, giving away worldly goods, and being mysteriously rewarded for her generosity. When, as a child, she gave away all her mother’s butter, it was replenished three-fold. She kept a secret store of clothes and food for the poor and in one story even gave her father’s treasured sword to a leper.

Brigid showed how her Christian faith incorporated elements that were valued among her pagan neighbors – respect for the natural world and strong bonds of kinship. She is most notable for forming religious communities that became centers of prayer, charity and learning for both women and men. It was from these tightknit communities that early Irish Christians reached out to the rest of Ireland.

This prayer is attributed to St. Brigid – and sums up the earthy, joyful, communal faith she shared:

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.

I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.

I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.

If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.

White cups of love I’d give them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.

I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.

I’d like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.

I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.

I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever

And every drop would be a prayer.

(From Journey Toward Home: Soul Travel from Advent through Epiphany)

Beth in Gambia

Two years ago, a miracle happened to someone I love. My cousin Beth, who had faced the loss of a son, her parents, and her marriage all in a very short period of time, began a new life.

She could have started a new career, traveled, embarked on some self discovery…these are all things that people in traumatic transition do. In fact, she did all three and more. My cousin joined the Peace Corps and became a whole new Beth. Actually, the same Beth, only more. That happens when you open your heart and leap into life with both feet, which is what she did. I am so proud of everything about her experience.

They love her in Sabi.

Beth doing her favorite thing…holding a baby.

She’s ending her two years of service in The Gambia, where she learned a new language, lived with a local family in Sabi, promoted family health, and designed a new health education program that partners with the favorite local soccer club. Below is a reflection that gives the slightest glimpse of her experience. And if you are inspired, there is a link to help provide education for women and girls in The Gambia.

Haja Saray Gerew is a 28-year-old wife, mother, and Sabi daughter who was taken out of school after completing 9th grade to get married. Educating girls is considered a waste when their role is to marry, have children, and maintain the family. Many girls accept and perform their duties with a quiet acquiescence. Some are bitter and resentful. Most have no chance to change their circumstance.

Haja, I think, felt some of all these reactions. However, she did manage to stay involved in her community by being available every time she was asked to assist with development work where literacy and language translation were needed. She worked with several NGOs and government programs aimed at improving conditions in Sabi, helping with everything from registering births to health education to assisting with administrative tasks. She did this willingly and without compensation, always in addition to her duties as a wife and mother. And in so doing she did in fact continue her education.

When I met Haja, it was in response to my search for a language tutor. We had a few lessons and it was apparent that although a horribly inept language student, I would in fact begin a meaningful working and personal relationship with this young woman. Her enthusiasm at the possibilities of using her education and experience to assist in Peace Corps project work was palpable. Her passion for girls’ education was an energy I wanted very much to harness.

Haja spent many a time crying in frustration at her lack of opportunity to continue her education. We talked a lot, much of the time I just listened, feeling rather helpless as to how to help and hoping that maybe just being a friend was something. I remember one conversation, though, where I reminded her that the one thing no one could take from her was her ability to learn. “Haja, you can read, you can write, you are literate…you can learn, maybe not in a traditional classroom but if you are willing I will help you…start with books and start with your own children…teaching them will help you.” It was a conversation we would continue over the next months.

I began to research adult education. If this were America I would know what to do: contact the community college, enroll her in a GED program etc… But this is not America so what to do? I discovered that she could take the WASSCE exams as a “private student” and, if she did well enough, could get “credit” for academic knowledge just like graduates of senior secondary school. That was our first step. Haja contacted a former teacher, got all the necessary information for the process, obtained study material, and took 5 exams in September of 2014. The results were expected in December, but we had to wait until February …3 credits and 2 passes…better than many graduates. I think she was literally walking on air for the next weeks.

The response from her community of family, friends, and Sabi leadership has been overwhelmingly positive.  I was a little surprised at her reluctance to share the information with her husband’s family. In her community, pursuing education makes her “different” and therefore a target to very real, though subtle persecution.  Sameness and fairness are highly valued in this culture, therefore to be educated and literate can be seen as “different” and “other” and a threat. In spite of all that, Haja has embraced the challenge to continue and move forward. She wants to be a nurse.

Haja is committed to helping Sabi, her village, but it seemed the best short-term option was for her and her children to move to the Kombo area where she and her children could continue their education. With financial support, she and another Sabi friend found a residence to rent and we enrolled all the children in school at Grace International a well-developed private school with an excellent reputation. Their progress has been amazing.

YOU CAN BE A PART OF THIS MIRACLE! Beth started an education fund to help Haja, her children, and other women and girls in The Gambia pursue education – it is called Gambia Rising. You can get information and make a donation here. All of the money goes directly to educating girls and women in the Gambia. On the website you can read stories about some of the girls you can help – and direct your funds directly to them.

Thank you Beth! And thanks to all of you who make miracles happen.