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.

Bench-Pressed

Today it is Syrians. In days past, it was Iraqis, Central Americans, and Cubans. I’ve meet some from Burma and Sudan in my hometown. They are refugees, asylum seekers. Even with the sound turned down on my screen, pictures of families making long, harsh journeys across continents is jarring – whatever they are fleeing must be horrible to go through that.

And it is.

By the time we meet them (in the media or in real life) refugees are far from home, disoriented, disheveled, and desperate. But once, they were people with families, jobs, and hope. They don’t come here because they want to leave home – they come because they are fleeing for their lives. This story from Morning Edition on September 21 puts it in perspective – when your persecutors come for your children, staying home is not an option.

As I’ve listened to stories of the newest waves of refugees and asylum seekers, I think not only of their journeys, but of their prospects once they arrive. And thanks to my friend Susan Yarbrough’s wonderful book Bench-Pressed, I have a better understanding – and a softer heart – for persistence and faith it takes to both seek and provide safe haven.

For nearly 18 years, Susan Yarbrough was a United States Immigration Judge and heard thousands of asylum cases each year. The five cases she describes in the book – one for each of the statutory grounds upon which she could grant asylum – are heartrending and as a reader you can begin to understand why she says the work “changed the course of my emotional and spiritual life.” When I met Susan, I was immediately struck by her commitment to radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, which is something she both brought to her service on the bench and also something that developed as she encountered the people who came before her.

The name of the book – Bench-Pressed – has a wonderful double meaning. She describes her years of training with weights and the vulnerability one feels lying on a narrow bench lifting a heavy metal bar straight up above your body. The work of hearing asylum cases is like that, a heavy burden that makes one feel vulnerable under its crushing weight. Yet she recalls that the Yiddish word bentch, which means “blessing,” is also an apt description of that work. Reflecting on her time as an immigration judge she writes, “all the people into whose faces I had looked as they sat on the witness stand near me had indeed blessed me in some way or another.”

And so she tells the stories of Esteban, Josué, Khalid, Elena, and Daniel. Their struggles are particular, yet they have happened and are still happening to thousands of people around the world. People crossing the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean – and streaming into Europe from Syria – today are also fleeing persecution on of account of race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion.

Bench-Pressed is moving because of the individual stories, and also because of the compassion we see in the way the cases are handled. I don’t always have a sense that the slow-moving systems that “process” immigrants and refugees have any humanity to them, but these stories and Susan Yarbrough’s witness of her own experience teach me otherwise. Get this book. Read it. And then go out and offer some radical hospitality of your own to the strangers among us.

Feather Finder

My daughter is a feather finder. She loves feathers and finds them wherever she goes. Some are fancy enough to bring home, but most are pretty common and stay where they’ve landed on the grass or in bushes or along sidewalks. Whether she keeps them or not, she looks at them closely, because she loves them. And if you love something, it is worth some examination.

Over the weekend, she held my hand as we walked our dog around the block. It is a walk I’ve taken a thousand times before and I feel like I know it pretty well – the pavement, the neighbors’ houses, the pitch of the hills. On every walk, I compile a to-do list in my head and usually miss the nature and the neighbors. On my own, I know what lies along the route, but I don’t see it.

It is a different walk with my daughter, because she is a feather finder. We can talk about anything in the world, but because she cares about feathers, she will notice them. They are actually right there in plain sight for anyone to see – anyone who seeks them, anyone who cares about them. She finds feathers even when she isn’t looking for them because she is attuned to feathers. They find her.

What am I missing on these walks? While my mind is wandering far away, what is my heart missing? If I hold my daughter’s hand a little more often, will she tether me to the moment and help me see beauty and meaning there?

 

Well Spring

Here are the ingredients for a great retreat:

First, the drive. It was supposed to be just over an hour away through the Texas Hill Country just outside of Austin. On a gorgeous sunny day I was listening to James Taylor’s new CD and driving down a stretch of highway toward a couple days of relaxing with new friends. But because Google didn’t really know what the heck it was talking about and a bridge was washed out on one really important turn, I got lost and it took 2.5 hours. Still – a gorgeous day!

True friends find you when you are lost.

(If you are going to get lost in the Hill Country, I suggest you have a friend like my buddy John who tracked me down, got lost (again) with me and then found our destination with time to spare before dinner was served.)

Next, setting. We stayed in a lodge at the Wellspring Retreat Center which has retreat-worthy sofas, rocking chairs, porches, and views. It was impossible to look the wrong way – every direction gave up vistas of rolling hills and climbable live oaks. At night, the sky was filled with stars and it was dark enough to see them surrounding the crescent moon. Probably best, at least for this sun-weary Texan, was a full day of cloudy weather. A rare treat.

View from the porch – and clouds to make it perfect.

But really, the heart of any retreat is the people. All of us are just meeting each other, just starting out on our theological educational journey in a new environment. Even those of us (like me) who already live in Austin are making huge adjustments and jumping into the unknown. So it was important and also comforting to get to know everyone in a setting other than campus – with its proximity to classrooms, library, and  work-study assignments. The slow rhythm of group meetings, relaxed worship, and down time made it possible for us to know a whole lot more about our fellow travelers and the amazing life experiences each brings with them. That, a multi-day game of Risk, and nightly parties in the parking lot.

I’m still not sure any of us is ready for classes to start on Monday, but they will whether we are ready or not. And in addition to all the information we received during orientation, we now have each other. Game on!

 

dis- re- oriented

All this week I am in orientation for seminary, but as our Academic Dean observed today, it feels more like disorientation. Life is being turned upside-down as I go from my old life-rhythm to a new one. I am taking in so much new information it is overwhelming – I know I won’t remember it all. There is excitement and grief in all these changes. I love being a student and being on this beautiful campus, but am getting teary thinking about the time I will lose with my kids when I am all the way across town as they get off the school bus in the afternoons. By the end of September, we will all have a new normal, but for now things still feel out of balance. Unsettled.

I was thinking about all of this today in the first of three chapel services. (That right there is a big change.) The chapel is an architectural metaphor for our life here at seminary. There is a firm floor and a strong stone wall on one side. But the cross, instead of hanging on a wall behind the altar, is on the other side of a large window, not inside the chapel but pulling our eyes to the world outside it. It is a visual reminder that all of us here are preparing to leaving this place from the moment we enter, we are being called into other roles, other lives.

As you sit in the chapel, you can’t help but notice that across from the stone wall is a wall of windows. So, in this quiet space while you sing or pray or check your phone for email, you can’t help but notice squirrels playing in the trees or butterflies checking out the flowers in the garden or other people walking by. The busy world is out there with the cross, calling for your attention.

At times it seems like all the activity on the other side of the window is a distraction. But at other times, it feels like a reminder, “Oh yeah, that is why I am here.” None of us is here to remain in a permanent blissful, contemplative state, we are here to get information and hone skills that we will practice out there on the other side of the window.

So, in fact, my new friends and I are being oriented to a new environment and disoriented because everything is new and unsettling. But we are also being reoriented, turned to face a new direction, learning to pay attention to the same old things in a new way and from a new perspective.

Of course, it occurred to me as the day was ending that when I leave this place next spring, I’ll have to do this dis- re- orienting all over again.

Things I will miss about CPE

I’ve been both poetic and snarky about my summer as a hospital chaplain. There are some things about it that I will not miss at all. But for the most part, it has been an amazing experience for which I am deeply grateful. So, in no particular order, here are the things that have made my summer wonderful:

Lee Ann, Megan, JP, Henry, Susan, Mike, Nadine, and me.

Did I say no particular order? That goes for the end of the list, but number one in all respects is my team! We are seven interns and one supervisor. Among us are many lifetimes of experience – a former federal judge, retired nurse, social worker – all focused on sitting with whoever needed a shoulder to lean on or an ear to listen. I learned from each and every one of them how to be a better pastor and a better person. We’ve been with each other through grief, struggle, frustration, joy, and relief. We had a lot of fun and every member of the team knows that a sense of humor is the number one survival skill in stressful jobs. A sense of humor and hot cookies (see below).

I am about to be a student again, and after that get on the lowest rung of the church ladder to start a new career. So pardon me if one of the things I will miss from this summer is the power trip of my badge. With this baby, I could swipe my way into three emergency rooms, gain access to the highly secure NICU, and, most important, get a 10% discount at the cafeteria – that’s 10% off every slice of pie and cake I had while on call. And 10% off hot cookies.

Nurses. Sure, I’m impressed with the doctors, clinical assistants and social workers I met this summer, but I was blown away by every single nurse with whom I worked. They all did more than attend to the health of their patients – I saw them cry with parents who lost a child, hold hands with dying patients, negotiate with families in conflict, and have conversations with premature babies. If a chaplain shows up unexpectedly in the middle of a crisis, you can bet it was a nurse who made the call. Even at the end of a 12-hour shift, these women and men can still keep their cool in an emergency and soothe a child visiting a sick parent.

I’m going to miss my patients and their families. In some units, patients are only there for a day or two, but in my units (antepartum and NICU) there are patients and families who have been in the hospital all summer long. I’ve gotten to know them and see them thru that strange mix of anxiety and hope that is part of high-risk pregnancies and birth. I “met” some babies before they were born. After I leave, they will still be working hard at what babies do – learning to eat, getting bigger and stronger. I won’t know how they are doing or when they go home, but I won’t be able to stop imagining it…All of them have blessed me tremendously.

Honestly, I have never worked in a place with so many polite and friendly people. Every single one of them will offer you directions if you look the slightest bit lost. Nurse, administrator, janitor – doesn’t matter. You cannot go down a hallway without smile after smile after “how are you today?” And if you choose to answer, they will stop and listen. It is contagious and I hope I stay infected.

Y’all, I may never be able to work anywhere ever again that does not have hot cookies at least once a week. Huge-as-your-face hot cookies. And co-workers who page you so that you don’t miss out on the yumminess.

I love the theological discussions that happen in seminary – in class and on the fly – but the discussions in CPE have been different. We weren’t talking about theological concepts in a vacuum, isolated from real life, we were living through applied theology. Where is God in the midst of suffering? How do you find hope in a trying situation? What resources help people cope with stress? Or…How can I be more “there” for other people? How do I better identify their needs? How can I stop trying to fix people and just be with them?

To my colleagues, my babies, the nurses, and the cookies: Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart.

What I am learning

I’ve been reading some great books this summer and watching some great videos – all part of my chaplaincy training. (None of them are pictured above, but look at those titles!) The material and the discussions are changing the way I experience my encounters with just about everyone, not just patients, and also helping me develop skills to better listen and respond to people’s needs – spoken and unspoken. Check it out:

Wit – We watched the HBO movie adaptation of the play, featuring the incomparable Emma Thompson and the amazing Audra McDonald. This movie was a crash course in empathy in a medical setting. Heartbreaking.

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s project is to have us rethink the way we use language, thinking, and judgments. The four components of nonviolent communication are observations of what is actually happening, identifying the feelings present in the situation (and what real feelings are), articulating the needs  connected to those feelings, and the actions we can take to address the real needs people have. It sounds simple, but it isn’t! Most of us have learned a totally different way to handle communication and conflict, and this book presents a totally new approach.

Extraordinary Leadership, by Roberta Gilbert. This book takes family systems theory and applies it contexts particular to clergy – but really the principles can apply to any organization. It is nearly impossible for me to boil the theory down here, but we’ve learned a lot about the anxiety that is present in all human interactions, the roles we all learn to play in our families of origin – and how those roles are recreated in other relationships (social, professional, etc.), and how leaders can help the organizations they serve navigate the chaos and emotional intensities that inevitably arise when people live, work, and worship together.

Brené Brown. No particular book, just her entire project! I am a big fan of Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability – and wholehearted living. But I always thought about it in terms of my own life – my particular sources of shame and vulnerability, the risks I am willing to take. Now, I am learning to think about these concepts as I meet, listen to, and minister to strangers.

And then there are the amazingly wise chaplains who have taught us from their own experience. Today, our whole group of chaplain interns gathered at the feet of a woman who opened the discussion with a quote from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

It is true. At a hospital, almost everyone feels broken in one way or another; most people feel extraordinarily vulnerable and imperfect, hopeless and isolated. But there is light in their troubles, in their wounds, in their mortality. There is light in their relationships and anxieties, in the words and silences we share. Once in a while, sitting with people I’ve only just met, there is a glimpse of these rays of light shining thru the cracks. What seemed like utter brokenness becomes an occasion of grace and blessing. It is those moments that illuminate all the others, the occasions into which light yet to find its way.

Books and discussions help me identify the miracles that can happen when I truly listen, when I am utterly present with another person. But nothing replaces the experience of begin with another when the light gets thru the cracks in their life, when they experience hope in their desolation, when they know love while they are feeling most isolated. If I experienced nothing else this summer, this has been more than enough.

Joy v Happiness

I’ve heard about the difference between joy and happiness, but this summer, I am learning it personally.

Happiness comes from outside yourself – good fortune, wealth, life running smoothly. But this summer I am with people who are in the midst of crises and lives that have hit rough spots. None of them are happy about it, but some of them do have joy. It can be almost tangible, the sense they exude of peace and contentment, even when they are suffering.

Joy comes from within, it is part of a person’s essence. Both theologians and psychologists describe this capacity that people have (or don’t) to rise above tough times, to be resilient, to find meaning in their circumstances.

I cannot give anyone joy – although perhaps I can give them happiness from time to time – but I hope I can help them honor, discover, or recover the joy within them. I know that they do it for me. Sometimes watching joy sustain a person in pain touches a place of joy in me and reminds me to nurture this inner resource.

Resurrections

The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.

In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.

In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.

Resurrection is hope, transformation, and renewal.

As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.

Learning to be and be with

Sometimes you hope for a quiet Sunday and…nope. I suppose that is to be expected. At the hospital, things are changing for people all the time. When I arrived this morning, there were messages of impending demise and patient angst. The operative words have been comfort care and “we just want what’s best for her/him.” Even when those are the sentiments, it can be hard to know exactly what is comforting and what is best.

This summer, I am learning to sit with people through the anxiety, the unknowing, and the pain. Compassion literally means to suffer with – and that is what I am doing much of the time, sitting with patients and their families as they consider hard choices and try to make meaning from what is happening to them and around them. (It is, in fact what the families are doing together for each other – being compassionate.) What we learn in chaplaincy is that we can’t make people’s problems go away, but we can be with them. And sometimes presence is not only enough, it is best.

It is hard when things don’t go as planned. When a father takes a turn for the worse, when a sibling takes her own health for granted, when a neighbor has a terrible accident. You can see it in the eyes sometimes, this feeling that life is changing course but no one has been given the new map yet.

For me, it is a job. I get to go home at the end of the day. (Or in this case, tomorrow morning). But these patients and families are teaching me patience. They are teaching me how to wait and and be present. (Didn’t I recently say I was impatient with my patients? Shame on me!) It is inspiring to see people stop their busy-ness and just BE with each other – a light in the darkness, as it were. They are anxious, they crave information, they want to know what to do. But what they do is wait with their loved one. Being there for one another in the waiting is the one thing no one else can give them.