Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A story of drugs, sleeping around and unknown identities

On All Saints Day, after church activities, I headed for the hills. Every year the Lutheran and Moravian professional holy women in North Carolina have a three-day retreat. It's a marvelous get-away filled with conversation and laughter. (Yes, there's a little alcohol mixed in, too.) This year we met at Laurel Ridge, which is a Moravian Camp with a to-die-for view that is achieved by driving up a cork-screw road to the top of a mountain. It rained the whole time, but still, knowing the view was out there somewhere was comforting.

Two women led our time together: Dr. Katherine Shaner, an ELCA pastor who teaches New Testament at Wake Forest Divinity, and Kay Ward, who is a Moravian bishop and well-known author. Katherine's sessions led us to consider circles of saints who fill our lives, beginning with ourselves, then naming women who have influenced us, and then women in the Scriptures. Finally, we considered those who are unnamed, both in the biblical story and in our own stories. It heightened my awareness of the unnamed, and I spent some time pondering those who are unintentionally unnamed persons in my life, the ones whose names I would like to know but have remained unknown because of circumstances, and the ones whose names are unknown to me by intention, the ones who quite honestly don't matter enough to me that I would care to know their names. Hmmmm.

Well, I was having a great time until the wee-wee hours on the morning of the last day. That's when I was awakened by excruciating pain in my shoulder. I wanted to cry, the pain was so great. I made it to breakfast and happened to sit beside Kay. I mentioned my pain and asked if she had any NSAIDS with her. I had definitely asked the right person. She whipped out a days-of-the-week pill dispenser. In one compartment was aspirin, in another Advil, then Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Aleve... "What would you like?" she asked. I decided on Aleve. "They're small. Take two," she said. So I popped them in my mouth and hoped for the best.

About 30 minutes later I was relieved that I felt no pain. All was well! But then, as I was sitting in the morning circle, all of a sudden I was so sleepy that I was afraid I might fall face down onto the floor. That's when I realized that wasn't just any Aleve. It was Aleve PM. Lord, have mercy! I stumbled out of the room, landed on a couch in the lobby, and I was out.

There was a woman there from the camp who had been waiting on us hand and foot. She truly had the gift of hospitality. When she saw me on the couch, she came to me and asked if I needed help, if I wanted to go to a room with a bed... "I just want to sleep!" I snapped her. Then as I was dozing I felt someone place a blanket over me and, without opening my eyes, I knew it was this kind Moravian servant who wouldn't let me sleep.

My clergy sisters came and got me to lunch. Somehow I made it, and I was able to chew my food, although I could very easily have laid my head on my plate and slept in my pasta. (Have I mentioned that I am VERY sensitive to sleep meds? And I took TWO of those things!) After lunch, everyone was going home. What was I going to do? 

Three of us were there from Charlotte and we all had driven ourselves, of course, so I couldn't get a ride back. I clearly couldn't drive myself, not if I expected to live. I could take a nap and leave before dark, but I knew that the drug would still be working on me after a few hours. So, it seemed that the only logical solution was to stay in the lodge, get my sleep, and leave in the morning. We all agreed that would be the best thing. The staff would be leaving, so I would be all alone with no food service. My clergy sisters prepared me a plate of snacks, handed it to me, and they were on their way. Almost all of them.

As I stood with my food provisions in my hand, hoping to soon be in a bed, my dear friend Susan Bame and the Moravian servant approached me. "We're going to take you back to Charlotte," they informed me. Despite my objections--I couldn't put them out like that, it would mean at least four hours of time in the car in addition to the drive they already had to get home--they convinced me that it was the best solution. The Moravian servant would drive my car, Susan would drive hers, and after they left me in Charlotte, they would drive back up the mountain together before going home. Okay. We could do this.

And then it dawned on me. A woman is going to be driving my car with me in the passenger seat for a couple of hours and I DON'T KNOW HER NAME! Up until this point, her name hadn't mattered to me. So, I asked Susan, "What is her name?" She didn't know. The two of us began asking everyone we saw, "What is her name?" No one knew. Finally, we found someone who told us her name was Betty. Okay. Betty was driving my car to Charlotte with me in it, konked out in the passenger seat.

So, when we finally got to Charlotte, as Betty was about to get out of my car to get into the car with Susan for a couple of hours and ride back up the mountain, she turned to me and whispered apologetically, "Can you tell me what her name is?" How perfect was that?

Names. In some ways they aren't all that important. These two saints banded together to minister to me in a crisis and neither knew the name of the other. And yet, as the one they helped, I'm grateful to know both their names.

As a postscript to this blog... Yesterday I received a sweet note in the mail from dear Kay, the woman who gave me the Aleve PM. She wrote, "It isn't often that an upstanding Lutheran pastor gets drugged by a Moravian bishop." Of course she didn't mean to drug me, but it makes for a good story!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Communion of Tears

Preached at Holy Trinity for All Saints' Day, 2015.

You’re driving through a residential neighborhood. It’s about 9:00 in the morning on a Tuesday, and you come upon a house and notice that the driveway is full and cars are parked up and down the street for about a block. What do you assume is going on inside that house?... Somebody died. 

It’s not unlike the scene Jesus saw as he approached the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. Mourners were surrounding the house so that it was difficult for Jesus to make his way through the crowd. 

Now the mourners could be divided into three groups. There were the ones were paid mourners. There also were those who had come to see if Jesus would show up and do something to incriminate himself. And then there were those who were there because of the love they had for Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.

Which of these three groups was Jesus a part of? He wasn’t being paid to be there. He hadn’t come to see what would happen if he showed up. Was he there because of the love he had for Lazarus and Mary and Martha? 

Martha and Mary weren’t all that interested in why Jesus was there. The point for them was that he was there too late. Jesus knew Lazarus was dying and he delayed coming so that by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus’ body had already been in the tomb four days. “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died,” they said. 

It’s almost as if Jesus waited around to make sure Lazarus was good and dead before he got there. Did he know that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, and did he know that this is what would be the final straw for the Jewish leaders who were looking for a reason to have him arrested and executed? The way John tells the story, that would certainly seem to be the case. 

But then, what’s with verse 35, the one that is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus began to weep.” Earlier in the chapter, when Jesus learned that Lazarus was ill, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He lingered two days before starting off toward Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, and a dangerous place for Jesus. And as he made his way, his disciples warned him this wasn’t a smart move because the Jews were looking for a reason to kill him. Knowing this, Jesus continued his journey. And he explained to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

So, that’s what Jesus was thinking. His resolve was clear. And yet, when he arrived on the scene and looked around him, he began to weep. Why? Is it that he’s so angry about the fake mourners, or the ones who are out to get him? Many of those who saw him weeping assumed it was because he loved Lazarus so much. What gives? 

Well, if we read the verses just before 35, we read that when Jesus saw Mary and the Jews who came with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He asked where he could find the body of Lazarus, and he wept. It was the grief of others that led to his tears. Jesus’ cried out of compassion for those he loved. Their grief became his grief. 

It’s like when I’m at a funeral for someone I never knew. I’m there for those who are mourning. I may be presiding as a pastor, or I may be a person sitting in the pews. But often in those situations, I shed tears. Why? I didn’t even know the person who died. But I am sharing in the pain of those who are grieving so deeply. Has that ever happened to you? 

A couple years ago, some of our members were going through grief as a community. That grief was precipitated by the loss of their church, which closed its doors abruptly, and suddenly all they had was each other. By an amazing act of the Holy Spirit, they found their way to Holy Trinity. 

If you were here the first Sunday they worshiped with us, you will remember how they all huddled together in the back pews and they clung to one another. And then it was time for communion. 

They came to the altar and received Christ’s Body and Blood with tears flowing down their faces. And they learned that their community had suddenly grown much larger than they had ever imagined. For they were not alone in their tears. As I offered the Eucharist to members of Holy Trinity that day, many of them were also in tears. Why? No one had closed their church; this hadn’t happened to them. They didn’t even know these people. And yet, they loved them. They felt their grief, and they shared their tears.

Grieving is communal. It calls upon the very best part of us, our compassion. When you see cars parked around a house in the morning hours during the middle of the week, it has become a place of compassion. When you see bouquets of flowers piled at an accident site on the side of the highway, it is a place of compassion. When we gather as the Body of Christ to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine, we are a place of compassion. 

On this All Saints Sunday, we remember those who have left us grieving. And we also remember that as the communion of saints here in this place, we are a communion of tears. We’ve been left behind in our grief, but we are not alone. We’re a part of community that holds us in our grief and carries us into a place of life.

I wonder if that’s one meaning of the resurrection body for us. Maybe there is a resurrection of the body on this side of the grave. As the Body of Christ, we are resurrected, and the power of the resurrection is working through us whenever we grieve compassionately with those who mourn. 

We’ve been reading a book about the Beatitudes in my Sunday school class and two weeks ago we were discussing “blessed are those who mourn.” The author used the example of Job to point out how the community comes together to comfort those who mourn. Job had lost everything in his life that was dear to him, and he had three friends who came and sat with him for seven days. For seven days they just sat with him. That was healing for Job. 

Then Job’s friends had to ruin it all and speak. One by one they tried to explain to him why this terrible situation had befallen him, and one by one they made Job angrier and angrier. Their presence, their shared grief had been enough. Their explanations were not helpful—a good lesson for us when we gather around the grieving and feel a need to speak. It is our presence, our shared grief that is needed. 

We hold the grieving person in our midst, perhaps literally, perhaps through cards and prayers and flowers and a casserole at the door. We give them the space they need. We free them to grieve in whatever way works for them, apart from any expectations of our own. We hold them in community. And, in time, they become community for others who grieve.

Look at the way today’s gospel passage ends. After Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” Notice what it says, “The dead man came out.” The dead man. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, he is still a dead man. He’s bound up in bands of cloth like a mummy. It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?

His face and his hands and feet are all wrapped up. Jesus says to the people gathered around, “Unbind him, and let him go.” It wasn’t until the community unbound him that he was given new life. 

Perhaps that’s what it means to have eternal life in our earthly existence. We are so bound by death: the grief it brings us when it takes someone we love away, the fear of our own impending death that snatches away our joy in experiencing the beauty of this life, the crazy things we do to deny the fact that our lives on this earth have a beginning and an end. To receive eternal life, to experience resurrection in this life, we must be unbound in the face of our mortality. We don’t unbind ourselves. That takes a community. In the face of death, we unbind one another to live as resurrected people. What a gift it is to be part of the communion of saints that is also a communion of tears.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Oo-oo, Witchy Woman!

If you follow my blog, you may remember that this past Easter we had protesters show up at Holy Trinity. They carried signs that said outrageous things, such as the one listing all the things people do that offend God including “pants wearing women.” Oh, my! Despite the fact that they were obnoxious and they tried really hard to ruin our Easter, most of the things they were shouting were laughable. As people were walking into the church building, the bellowing asses stood on the sidewalk spewing crazy condemnations at the top of their lungs. One of the things they wanted members of Holy Trinity to know was that their pastor is a witch!

The label did not fall on deaf ears. Members of my congregation weren’t about to forget it. I’ve been poked about being a witch on and off since Easter. In good fun, of course. So, I’ve played along with it. Tonight is our annual Halloween Party at Holy Trinity and, of course, I’m going as a witch.

This afternoon, after I had painted my fingernails black and was waiting for them to dry, I cruised through Facebook on my phone and came across a disturbing post from my friend Linda Faltin. It was all about women in Africa who are deemed witches. In the Central African Republic, as of 2010, 40% of the case load in their courts involved witches. In Tanzania it has been estimated that as many as 500 “witches” are lynched every year. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s been said that of the 25-50K children living on the streets of the capital, most are there because they have been accused of witchcraft. In Ghana as many as 2,000 accused witches and their dependents are confined in five different camps. Most of the inmates are destitute, elderly women who have been forced to live there for decades.
Whoa! What’s going on? Christian Fundamentalism. It’s spreading in other parts of the world. And there’s this little verse in Exodus 22 that says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Suddenly, the whole witch thing isn’t seeming all that funny after all. I know that here in America we also have a history of going after so-called witches. And perhaps the men who were yelling outside our church building on Easter were thinking of Exodus 22 when they called me one. Yikes!
So, now I’m going to go to this party as a witch. Damn.
I’m not going to be able to forget about the women and children who are condemned as “witches” and suffer oppression, torture and death as a result. How can I? But I am going to the party tonight in my costume as planned, and here’s what I’m going to do.
I will strut my witchy self into that party and play the part. And I will be thankful to be part of a faith community that will enjoy it. We don’t take Exodus 22 seriously. And we don’t judge people who disagree with us by labeling them “witches” or “heretics” or anything else that in some times and places could get them killed. Most of all, I’m thankful to be a part of a faith community where—should someone actually be a real live witch—we would love them anyway!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Will Kim Davis ever go away?

This was the sermon preached on October 4 at Holy Trinity. The text was Mark 10:2-16.

Will Kim Davis ever go away? She’s the clerk of courts in Kentucky who refuses to marry same sex couples, even though it’s her job to do so. She’s gone to jail for what she believes. She’s convinced she’s right about marriage being only between a man and a woman, and there are a whole lot of Christians who agree with her. When we argue that Jesus never said anything about this topic, they will insist that, in fact, he did, and this is the text they go to: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Now, I would argue that Jesus was answering a question about divorce here, and in the course of his answer, he described the way marriage was in his day. Of course, in his context, he never would have said, “A person shall leave their parents and be joined to another person, according to their sexual orientation, and the two shall become one flesh.” That’s absurd. Given the context of Jesus’ world, he never would have said anything like that.

It’s hard to argue with a fundamentalist about the scriptures. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that we meet them on their level. They clobber us with Bible verses and we clobber them back with some Bible verses of our own.  That never works. And it’s not the way we Lutherans read the Bible. The Bible is not a weapon, or a rule book, or a collection of ideas that come straight from God so we need to accept them unquestionably. That’s just not how we read it. We question the Bible, we wrestle with it, and we’re okay with disagreeing with it at times. We struggle to understand the original intent of passages from the Bible and how that intent might translate into our present context. In other words, we don’t read the Bible the way conservative Christians do, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever agree. I don’t know what we can do about that. 

There’s more than just a different way of interpreting scripture going on. We’re not reading the words with the same eyes, hearing the words with the same ears. Recently, among people who make it their life’s work to study the scriptures, a new field of study has emerged called polyvalence. Polyvalence, refers to the way a text means different things to different people and many of those different meanings can be predicted based on things like gender, age, nationality.  In other words, we cannot assume that we all draw the same meaning out of a text. 

The Biblical scholar Mark Alan Powell has done some mind-blowing research in this area. He’ll do something like take a Biblical text and find out what it means to one audience and then compare that to what it means to another audience. For instance, he looked at the story of the Good Samaritan where Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and told a story to answer the question. A guy was robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Then some good religious types were traveling that same road, they saw the half dead man, and they walked on by. Finally, it was an outsider, a Samaritan, who stopped to help. As Americans, the meaning for us is generally that we should stop and help people who are in trouble, we should be like the Good Samaritan in the story. 

However, Powell spent some time in Tanzania, and he learned that this is not the meaning Tanzanians pull from the story. For them, the main point of the story is that people who’ve been robbed, beaten and left for dead can’t afford the luxury of prejudice. They should accept help from whoever offers it. God can work through anyone, including those we might regard as heretics. So, for us, the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is, my neighbor is “anyone who needs my help.” For a Tanzanian, the answer is “anyone who helps me.” For the Tanzanian, the Good Samaritan is not just a moral story about how we need to help those less fortunate. It’s about empathizing with the marginalized and the powerless. This difference in meanings across cultures is an example of polyvalence. 

It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching on divorce in the first part of today’s gospel is a text rich with polyvalence.

  • Think about what this text means to Kim Davis.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have never been married.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who are married to someone of the same gender.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married to the same person forever.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who are divorced or separated.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married, divorced, and are now married to someone else.
  • Think about what this text means to those of us who have been married, divorced, married, divorced, married, divorced, married… Oh wait, we’re back to Kim Davis, aren’t we?

Why is this important? Because it’s not just a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong when we read the Bible. The circumstances of our lives affect the meaning we draw from a text like the one we have today, just as surely as the circumstances of her life affect the meaning Kim Davis draws from this text. 

I can make an educated guess about the meaning of today's gospel by considering it in context. I can look at the way women and children were treated as property to be discarded by men without a second thought in Jesus’ world. And I can look at the literary context of this teaching about divorce, particularly in light of what follows about welcoming and blessing children. And I can say with confidence that Jesus' teaching is about protecting those who have no rights and no power in society. So, at its heart, this passage isn’t about divorce at all, but it’s about the value of those the dominant culture sees no value in protecting. I can make a pretty strong case for that, based on the evidence. Ironically, I also could make a case for protecting the rights and well-being of LGBT folks, based on the deeper meaning of this text! But that doesn’t change the meaning others will draw from it. 

We need to recognize that and somehow deal with it. How do we do that? I wish I could tell you, but I’m still working it out, too. I do know it’s important that the perspective of progressive Christians be heard as we wrestle with how to apply the truths we find in the Bible to life in our contemporary context. We can’t allow conservative Christians to speak for us. But we also need to recognize that not all Christians understand the Scriptures the way we do. It’s a challenge—one I pray we will meet with love.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The witch is in!

I’ve been in a wickedly witchy way all day, so prepare for a rant. I really don’t want to be judgmental, but there are some people who just draw the judgmentalism right outa me. What they do at home is their own business, but when they share space with others, like a church for instance, they need to show some consideration. After nearly four decades of ordained ministry, I hereby decree that I have had my fill of the following:
  • People who bring coffee into worship, stow their half-empty cups under a pew and leave them there after they go home.
  • People who throw their gum on the floor where someone else steps in it and grinds it into the carpet.
  • People who use up all the paper in the copy machine and don’t bother to refill the drawer.
  • People who jam the copier and walk away without unjamming it, or at least leaving a note of apology.
  • People who use the last staple in the stapler and don’t bother to fill it for the next person.
  • People who finish up the toilet paper, or all but the very last square of toilet paper, and don't replace it, with no concern for the next person who will be paperless in a situation where a person never wants to be paperless.
  • People who clog the toilet so it overflows and then don't bother to mention it to anyone. This is right up there with people who take a major dump and then leave without flushing.
  • People who use the microwave, their food splatters all over it while they’re cooking, and then they don’t bother to clean it out.
  • People who go to toss their paper towel in the trash can in the restroom, miss their target and leave the crumpled mess on the floor.
  • People who use the church kitchen and walk away with dishes in the sink, or crumbs on the counters or an overflowing garbage can.
  • People who finish their cigarettes and then flick the butts on the ground.
  • People who park in our public parking lot and don’t want to take their trash with them so they leave it in on the ground: Miller cans, Starbucks cups, McDonald’s bags, etc.
What do all these people have in common? They have absolutely no consideration for those who come after them. They do whatever they damn well please, make a mess, and walk away. Just who do they think is going to clean it up? Who is going to do what they left undone? Who is going to undo what they’ve done? They are careless, and by that, I mean they don’t care about anyone other than themselves. They are the center of the universe and the rest of us are here to serve them.

I put the person who walks away without replacing the toilet paper in the same category with all people who have no consideration for those who come after them. If you’re capable of splattering the inside of a microwave and leaving the mess for the next person to clean up, you are right up there with people who abuse the environment without regard for those who come after you. And if you can walk away from a copier that you’ve jammed, you clearly aren’t ready to take responsibility for the way your actions impact the world around you. If you will toss your beer can in a parking lot, you will just as surely toss people aside when they no longer serve your needs. I know there has to be a correlation between those who are inconsiderate in little ways and those who are inconsiderate in big ways.

I have no patience with this behavior. If I knew who did these things, I’d ask them to clean up their own mess, but they always dump and run under a cloak of secrecy. This makes me think they realize that they’re wronging the rest of us. But I have to wonder if they feel any guilt about it. Do they care that this is not the way to love your neighbor as you love yourself?

If I were a real witch, I'd banish each person who does such things to his or her own little planet where they can make all the messes they want and then walk away. Of course, they’ll be stuck with a massively messed up planet if they don't eventually take responsibility for their actions. But that would be their problem, which is exactly as it should be. With all of them banished to their planets, then the rest of us could spend more time cleaning up our own messes. I know I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pope Backlash

I'm troubled by all the backlash about Pope Francis having a conversation with Kim Davis. Why does the pope have to be perfect in every way before we give him credence? He's a human being, a saint and sinner like all of us. He does some stuff I don't like (such as supporting an exclusively male priesthood), but that doesn't make him the devil incarnate. It just means that I don't agree with him on some points. Why does the fact that the pope did something many of us don't like negate all the good he did in his visit to the US?

How quickly we turn on those who don't meet our expectations. We're all in or we're all out. I don't know which is a greater problem -- the need we have to idealize people who are flawed like all the rest of us, or our propensity to attack them when they fail to meet our expectations. What's the deal?

It's much like people who leave the church over one negative experience, or those who discount all of Scripture because they can't buy every word of it hook-line-and-sinker. I'm reminded of when Jesus said, "whoever isn't against us is for us", which happened to be our reading last Sunday. He didn't say whoever isn't for everything we're for is against us, which seems to be what we believe. We are quick to draw lines between ourselves and those who disagree with us. Those who don't see things our way become the enemy. Really?

I encourage those who are ready to throw everything the pope did last week out with the Kim Davis bathwater, to examine why they have reacted this way? Why did you expect so much of a human being? And why has his failure to meet your expectations caused you to dismiss him completely?

Can we stop drawing lines between us and them? (Them being everyone who disagrees with us.)People aren't either good or bad. The world can't be divided into friends or enemies. Life is a lot more complicated than that.

I'm not here to be the hero in my little life's drama, doing battle with every evil foe I encounter. There is as much evil in me as the next person, and as much good, too. I know the same is true of Pope Francis. That's why I'm giving him a break for doing something I wish he hadn't.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Political Correctness. Who cares?

When did being politically correct go out of fashion? The words politically correct have become the butt of jokes. In some circles, it’s considered an insult to accuse someone of being too politically correct. What’s up with that?
Perhaps the problem is using the word politically. I know many people bristle at anything relating to the word politics. But the thing is, most of the people who are leading the charge against political correctness these days are politicians. Some have made a name for themselves by deriding political correctness. “Let’s return to the good old days when we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct, when we were free to speak our mind”, they’ll say to the cheering crowds. I’m not cheering. I’m disgusted.
The intent of political correctness is filtering what we say so that others are honored and respected. And this is a bad thing, why? Because we don’t care about running roughshod over the feelings of others? We don’t care about how they prefer to be addressed? We don’t care about how words are often used as weapons to keep others in their place? In short, because we don’t care.
My recollection of the “good old days”, as a woman who grew up in the 50s, is that it was a time when old white men did all the talking. These days, women, people of color, the disabled, youth, immigrants, and others have found their voice. I suspect that those who are opposed to political correctness are really just hoping to disrespect, belittle and bully any voices that are not their own into silence.
When political correctness is disregarded, compassion is disregarded, as well. And perhaps just plain old human decency.
I may not always do a great job of being politically correct, but I’m trying. Not because I care about following the latest trend, but simply because I care.