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.

Light and Love

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every Sunday, I light two candles: one for people on my prayer list and one for peace. The prayers are always specific, but some days they are lifted up from more places than just my heart. This was one of those days – the events of this week seemed to rise up before many of us at once, begging for light.

Like most people I know, this week has been one of grief and anger as we learned about the murder of nine African American women and men in their church. As we learned that they were murdered in an act of racist domestic terrorism. As we realized that, although this slaughter was unimaginably horrible, it was not surprising. Because we’ve seen so much of it lately – literally seen it captured on video and widely broadcast.

There is a lot I could say about what happened in Charleston – but there are other people saying it so well whose words I’ve been sharing on social media. (And I highly recommend you check them out.) What I can add is how this event was framed for me this morning. Because after I lit my candles and hoped those flames were bringing a tiny bit of light to the darkness in the world, we had a baptism in my congregation. After reflecting on the hatred we confront in the world and how faith calls us to respond, a joyful, dancing girl took vows to join in the work of helping light overcome darkness and love overcome hate. Together, a community  vowed with her to resist evil, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being.

As dismal as this week (and this year and this decade) has been, it is nice to be reminded that we have reason for hope. Dismantling racism – or any kind of evil – takes a team and today a very young girl joined that team. I am betting she was joined by many others as people gathered in congregations around the country to remember the victims in Charleston. In fact, I am betting the team to confront evil got bigger where people gathered in homes and community centers and on street corners to find their roles in peace and justice-making.

On days when hope seems distant and optimism feels false, it might be a candle or a splash of water or a young child reminding us that evil has not won. It might be an unexpected ally, shared bread, or the words of a song. Look for them, these reminders of hope all around us. Darkness cannot drive out darkness and hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only light and love can do that.  

Demise

Fetal demise. It doesn’t sound very nice and it isn’t. To know that your longed-for baby will be stillborn, that you have to go through labor and delivery with no happy outcome, that family is gathered outside your room waiting to console you…which will only affirm your deep sorrow.

And yet…in the midst of this sorrow there is love. There is a community gathered to grieve together. The true meaning of compassion is suffering with and that is what we do when we stay by the side of those who endure loss. We can’t make their pain go away. And ignoring it negates the very real agony another feels. But sitting alongside…there is nothing more affirming.

A blessing helps. A prayer helps. But really, it is the cohesion of family and friends that carry any of us through. Our presence is a reminder that God is with us in the midst of loss and pain – not just for the pretty parts, but the hardest, ugliest, cruelest parts. It is through these relationships to the divine and the human that endings are transformed. Into hope. Into connections. Into the future. Into affirmation that we are made for each other, to suffer and love together.

For any person who experiences a loss too soon, or any loss at all, the best any of us can offer is to sit and suffer with them. There is no way around grief, only through it. And although there are as many “right” ways to mourn as there are people, it is the people who mourn with us that make it possible for us to emerge from the other side. This summer, I am a sitter. One who will suffer with. But I am a stranger, and really this sitting and being is is a path open to any of us.

Beginnings and Endings

Earlier this week, I dropped my daughter off at camp and asked for a hug. “I won’t see you again until tomorrow morning,” I reminded her. She asked if I was going to be at the hospital and I said yes, I had a late night shadowing a chaplain on-call – learning the ropes.

“Oooo! Can you take pictures of dead people!”

Well, no. For her, my summer of CPE involves a completely unknown world, but she’s still her silly 7-year-old self about it.

Today, the morning after a quiet on-call, I experienced both ends of life, but in reverse order. First thing this morning, an unexpected death. Then, later in the day, a tour through the NICU (neonatal intensive care) where the babies are not only newborns, but tiny, fragile premature babies.

I can’t really write about who I saw or what we talked about – not only because it is against policy to do it, but also because these are some of the most intimate events in the life of individuals and families – and I need to honor that. And yet I want to process what I have experienced, talk about it, write about it. And it seems kind of strange to use the occasion of another family’s crisis to reflect only on myself…

What I can say is that being present for these families is a huge privilege and a gift. Others have been with my family at such times when I could not, and I love the thought that I am, in a small way, paying forward their kindness. And in some ways, I felt a little connection to those to whom I was ministering. Maybe their family names were the same as those on my regular prayer list. Or their sense of vulnerability echoed my own experiences. I’ve had family in ICU and I’ve worried about a longed-for child. I’ve had dear ones caught in these moments that feel out of time and place.

Life can turn so quickly from familiar to strange, from comfortable to difficult. None of us were meant to walk through those changes alone, we were created to go through them together. This summer, for a very short time, I’ll get to be one of the people who can tag along for the journey when people feel like they’ve been left alone or set adrift. I hope at some point they know what a blessing they are to me.

Clouds unCovered

A cloud can cover the beautiful blue, or bring much-needed rain. Is that one blocking the sun, or letting a ray through? It can be hard to tell – or maybe it all depends on what the soil of your heart needs that day. Sun or rain. Light or shade. We all need a little of both – one helps us feel the blessing of the other.

Prickly

 

There are memories that seem impossible to touch without feeling a sting.
They warn me to stand clear…but then lure me in with beauty and longing.
That which produces the sharp spines also makes a lush flower and a sweet fruit.
They spring from the same root, are nourished from the same soil.
I’d rather have them both than have neither.

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.