Thursday, February 26, 2015

Singing Above the Bellowing of Asses

I am sick to death of noisy Christians who do not in any way speak for me. It seems that the closer we get to equality in North Carolina, the louder they get. As our City Council in Charlotte considers non-discrimination ordinances that protect the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender residents, all the usual players are irritating the hell out of me.

I know they have a right to their opinion. But every hateful statement they make in the media should include a disclaimer: “The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of other Christians.”

They have decided to make an issue over who pees with whom. What if a man dresses up like a woman and sneaks into a public restroom and preys on little children? Who would want such a thing as that? Of course, the assumption is that transgender folks are pedophiles. This is ridiculous. It’s like saying redheads are rapists. It makes no sense. And yet, once the seeds of fear have been sown in the fertile field of ignorance, no matter how many facts you apply to the soil, those fears spread like crabgrass.

I resent the fact that those who spew such lies call themselves Christians. If that’s what it means to be a Christian, count me out. As someone who tries her best to know Jesus and follow him, I wonder who it is these so-called Christians are following. If it’s Jesus, it’s a Jesus I don’t recognize.

And so, I cannot remain silent. I sing with a choir of clergy voices that steadfastly offers a melodic message of love and acceptance here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We will not be silenced, despite attempts to disrupt and derail us. The hee-haws from the likes of Mark, Flip and Franklin will not drown us out. We sing in harmony: Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants of every flavor. We are people of faith who will not allow our song to be taken from us.

Can you hear us? We sing of love, not fear. Our voices transcend backward thinking bigotry and pull us into the future. I pray that members of our City Council won't be so distracted by the bellowing of asses that they miss the beautiful song of Truth. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Worm. Her name is Worm.

“Hi, I’m Worm.” Surely I hadn’t heard her right. It sounded like she said she was a worm.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. What did you say?”

“Worm. My name is Worm,” she said.
Worm. Her name is Worm. How is this possible? All night long I kept repeating those words in my mind. Worm. Her name is Worm.

We met at a dinner we were sharing with Underground Table, a creative dining experience that is off the grid. You join the group and at the last minute you receive details about when and where to go and a wonderful chef thrills you with culinary delights. You never know who will show up and part of the fun is meeting people you wouldn’t ordinarily have dinner with. People like Worm.

In many respects she reminded me of my sister Lorena. Like Worm, Lorena is a character who squeezes all the juice out of life, savoring each drop. She’s a warm-hearted soul and longs to be liked. And like Worm, my sister Lorena, also was given a nickname as a child. 

We called her Butchie. The name originated with my father who had been hoping for a son and was blessed with a second daughter instead. Thinking that perhaps a son was never going to happen for him, he dubbed Lorena Butchie. I was about 10 years younger than Butchie and always thought that was her real name.

It took me a long time to start calling Butchie, Lorena, which was the name on her birth certificate and the one she preferred after she left home and began a life for herself. Dropping Butchie was the right thing for her to do. Besides the fact that Butchie is no name for a woman, it was a name given because she was a disappointment to her father. How awful is that? Can you imagine being referred to as Disappointment all your life?

Unlike my sister, as an adult, Worm continued to use the name she was given as kid. Although I found it deeply troubling, she appeared to be fine with it. 

Ironically, I met Worm the week after Ash Wednesday. Through the years I’ve had increasing discomfort with the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy because of its worm theology. That’s what many of us call theology that focuses on how unworthy we human beings are, worthless like worms who can only grovel on the ground and beg for mercy. I am not a proponent of worm theology, and yet, on Ash Wednesday, it’s hard to avoid.

This year, I finally re-wrote the liturgy we use for Ash Wednesday, removing the worm theology. Yes, we are still not living as the people God created us to be and we need to face up to that. But the emphasis is on the people God did indeed create us to be, and God did not create us to be worms. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a worm, if you happen to be one. But people are not worms.

Worm. Her name is Worm. 

How had this become an acceptable name for her? She appeared to be at least 60 years old. Surely, in all that time she had had opportunities to change it. I am guessing that she enjoys the attention her name receives, which is something that also reminds me of my sister Lorena, who is never shy when attention comes her way. But really, what would it be like to go through life as a Worm? I can’t believe that it wouldn’t affect her in some deep, profound ways.

Although she is the only person I’ve ever met named Worm, I’ve known a lot of people who seem to think of themselves that way. Some of them are a part of my congregation. From time to time in my life, I have thought of myself as a worthless worm, as well.

It’s nothing new for people of faith to see themselves that way. Even the writer of the 22nd Psalm expressed this sentiment: “But as for me, I am a worm and not human, scorned by all and despised by all people” (vs. 6). Lord, have mercy!

Are we all worms? When we’re in the pits, it may be how we feel about ourselves. But is that who we are in the eyes of God?

I’ve come to see that worm theology is damaging to us as human beings. And it's an insult. Not only to us as people, but also to the One who created us. If there is any sin worth owning up to during Lent, it’s not that we are worthless worms. It’s that we see ourselves as worthless worms.   

And so, even though she told me her name is Worm, for the duration of our evening together, I couldn’t bring myself to address her by name.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Morning at Food Lion

I was standing in the check-out line at my neighborhood Food Lion when a boy, about 10ish, came stomping through the front doors having a hissy fit. “I don’t wanna take my medicine! I won’t take my medicine! And you can’t make me!” The kid was obviously out of control. Sounds to me like he NEEDS his medicine, I thought. It was such a perfect wise-crack that I turned around to see if I might share it with the person standing behind me in line.

A man with disheveled hair who looked like he had not bathed or shaved in several days clutched the sole item he was purchasing to his chest—an over-sized, brown bottle of cheap, nasty beer. At 8:00 in the morning. How sad was that? He was the caricature of an alcoholic.

Here I am, surrounded by people who can’t make it through the day without their drug of choice, I thought. What a sad commentary on our world.

I collected my bags. Two bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper and some mini-pretzels. This is why I had to make an emergency run to Food Lion at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. I carved out the day for writing. It’s grueling work and I knew I would never get through it without lots of caffeine, which I take cold, and something crunchy to eat. Yes, Diet Dr. Pepper and a bag of mini-pretzels ought to do the trick. I had to make an emergency run to Food Lion because I don’t keep such stuff in my house. I don’t keep such stuff in my house because I know it’s not good for me. Needless to say, I make a lot of emergency runs to Food Lion.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw beer man. He didn’t seem to be headed toward any car, so apparently he had walked to the store. It’s a good thing, I thought. He approached an old man with a cane and I assumed beer man was asking the poor, defenseless man for money. Oh, leave the old guy alone!  But then after a brief conversation, beer man smiled broadly, took the empty shopping cart from the old guy and returned it to the cart rack for him.

And that’s when my judgmentalism smacked me in the face. In the course of a typical day, I wonder how many judgmental assumptions I make about other people. I have come to the conclusion that it brings me great comfort to identify their problems without even knowing them as people. No doubt they do have problems, because we all do, but I can’t begin to know what they are. Still, it makes me feel better about myself when I can feel superior to other people and so this is what I do, usually without thinking about it. But I thought about it this morning. And the truth is, the only person in my little “Saturday Morning at Food Lion” scenario with a problem that I can identify with certainty is me. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Wendy and the Billy Goat

This morning as I was plucking a bristle from my chin I thought of my sister Wendy. It’s one of those things that women past a certain age do, but never really discuss. And Wendy actually has a name for it. She calls one of those pesky whiskers a Billy Goat. I don’t know if she invented this or not. I suspect she did because it’s the sort of thing she would come up with. But she may have picked it up somewhere. I often learn new expressions from her. She was the first person I ever saw raise her palm in the air and put it in my face as she said, “Hey, you’re talkin’ to the hand.” In other words, she didn’t want to hear it. She was also the first person I ever heard use the expression, “She just blew up the bathroom.” Again, apt words for the situation.

When we were growing up, I always found my sister annoying. The last summer I went to Camp Luella May, she went, too. She was in her own cabin, so we didn’t have a lot to say to one another because Wendy was in first grade and I was in sixth grade and that’s the way it works. I was going through my ugly duckling phase and basically hated her for being so damn cute. I have to admit she was just about the cutest kid I ever saw. She had curly blond hair and blue eyes with a dimple in her cheek. For the celebrity lookalike contest at camp I thought I was beyond clever when I put a bathing cap on my head and went as Yul Brynner. On the other hand, Wendy did nothing. Absolutely nothing. She went as Shirley Temple and won the prize. I was pissed. Later that week she was swinging on a rafter in her cabin, fell, and broke her nose. She had to wear a hat on her head for the rest of the week that said Don’t touch my nose and I felt guilty because I hadn’t been a very good sister. But hey -- competition, resentment and guilt -- that’s what sisterhood is built on, isn’t it?

I have a history with my sister that I don’t share with any other living soul on this earth. Although we aren’t able to spend much time together, I think of her constantly because my memories of her are triggered by so many common, everyday things. Last week when I was getting my hair cut, I thought of my sister as the hairdresser started snipping around my ears. Once when we were kids I cut Wendy’s hair and accidently took a chunk out of her ear. (She still reminds me of that from time to time.) I think of Wendy whenever I see a cameo pin, an old drop-leaf table, a guinea pig, an OSU football game on TV, a Labrador retriever, a squirrel at my birdfeeder, a Krispy Kreme donut, asparagus…

Yes, asparagus. The sight of it always makes me think of Wendy. Once just the two of us took a trip to the beach. We had eaten one too many Krispy Kreme donuts and needed a good, healthy dinner. So we found a steakhouse. After we sat down to order, we realized that it was outrageously expensive, but we decided to go for it. We could have gotten a side of asparagus for $20 but our bill was already well above $100 and we decided to forgo it. Still, it must have been some unbelievable asparagus for $20, we thought. Then, as someone at a nearby table was being served, Wendy looked at me and whispered, “Nancy! Look at the asparagus!” I looked over and there were two pieces of asparagus. It tickled us so much that we laughed until we cried. “Two pieces of asparagus!” She kept trying to say the words through her laughter, barely able to speak.  We couldn’t stop laughing and could hardly eat our outrageously priced meal. So, yes, I think of Wendy every time I see asparagus.  

The earliest memories that Wendy and I share are connected to our mother. She died when we were in our 20s. By then we were living in different parts of the country and only saw one another once or twice a year. Whenever we got together, it was like a therapy session as we discussed life with Mom and the way she impacted our lives. Mothers and daughters typically go through a process together, as they age, where they work through the complicated mother/daughter relationship. Without our mom, Wendy and I did that with one another. Eventually we worked it out. We came to accept the fact that our mother wasn’t perfect, just as neither of us are perfect. We forgave her for being human and grew up.

There was a time when my sister would say the words, “You’re just like Mom” to me and I would get my hackles up. Now I own up to it. Yes, I’m like my mother in a lot of ways. But then, so is Wendy. The older we get, the more I see it. We’re both hyper-sensitive, and yet we have a tendency to blurt out what’s on our mind in a way that can sometimes seem insensitive. We don’t hold back when we feel strongly about something. And we find humor in the weirdness of life, particularly our own lives. Just like Mom. I have come to the place in my life where I truly enjoy being in the company of someone who is also “Just like Mom” in so many ways. Wendy lives in Massachusetts now and I’m in North Carolina, so we don’t have the opportunity to spend as much time together as I’d like. But when we are together I always feel a little more complete than I do when we’re apart.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pooky's Cone of Shame and Cultivating Compassion

Last week my pug Pooky had a tumor removed from her eyelid. It required surgery and she ended up with some stitches. So she has been wearing an Elizabethan collar, otherwise known as the Cone of Shame as I began calling such things after seeing the movie Up a few years ago. It presents unique challenges to a pug for a couple of reasons. First of all, they have no neck so it’s really easy for her to slip out of it. I learned this from past surgeries where it lasted all of 30 minutes. But this time she has one that laces through her collar, so that problem was easily solved. The other thing about pugs is that their faces are all smooshed in, so it’s a long way from her mouth and nose to the end of the cone. I realized we were going to have to remove it for her to eat and drink, but I was surprised to discover another issue the first morning I took her out to relieve herself. She can’t poop with the collar on! That's because she can't poop without smelling the ground. So she kept walking around scooping up mud and gravel in her cone. It was quite comical in a pathetic sort of way. I had to bring her home, remove the cone, rinse it out and take her back outside unencumbered before business was accomplished.

This made me think about the way certain seemingly unrelated functions are often linked for us. I have a friend wouldn’t be able to talk if you tied her hands up.  I am so dependent on my glasses that, when I have them off, I can’t hear what someone is saying to me. Of course, there are more serious linkings in our lives. Like the way people can look around them and yet fail to see because their hearts are closed.

The problems in the world are overwhelming. You don’t have to look very hard to find abundant evidence of greed, cruelty, injustice, and just plain meanness. And yet, most folks don’t see it. Their eyes aren’t functioning properly because they have a heart problem. There is a definite link between eyes and heart. Just as there is a link between justice and compassion.

Years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation on "Nurturing a Social Consciousness through Church Education." I had lots of wonderful theories and ideas, and they still make sense to me. But the thing I missed in my dissertation is that justice begins with compassion. I couldn't learn that in a review of literature; I learned it from experience. When people I love are treated unjustly, I am compelled to act. No one with an open heart can fail to act for justice. But how do you open a heart? How do you cultivate compassion? Only God can do that. And yet, God never does anything in a vacuum. That’s where I come in. I pray that I can be a cultivator of compassion. 

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hearing God in Selma

Instead of writing my sermon on my day off, as I often do on Fridays, last week I decided to procrastinate another day and go see a movie. Selma was my choice.  Of course, Sunday’s texts were on my brain. They were about hearing God speak to us and responding to God’s voice. And, wouldn’t you know it, as I watched the movie, that’s all I could see. So, I ended up spending the afternoon in sermon preparation after all. (It’s the blessing or the curse of being a preacher, depending on how you look at it.) I found myself in a movie theater watching a powerful story about what happens when people listen to God’s voice and act.
Early in the movie, Martin Luther King is preparing to enter into an emotionally charged and potentially violent situation in Alabama. It’s nighttime and he can’t sleep. So he makes a telephone call. We see him waking a woman from her sleep on the other end of the line. When she answers he says, “It’s me.” She knows who that is. And then he tells her that he needs to hear from the Lord. It’s the gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson and she sings “Precious Lord” to him over the telephone. For Dr. King, in that moment, that’s what God’s voice sounded like.

The movie is filled with people who felt called by God, and answered that call. They came from all over the United States: North, South, East, West. People of all colors and backgrounds. All putting their lives on the line for the sake of people who were denied their voting rights because of the color of their skin. All responding to God’s call to do justice.

The most dramatic part of the story came when the protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to get outside Selma. The first time they tried, law enforcement was waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. As they approached, they were gassed and beaten. Dr. King was not with them that time. The next time they tried to cross the bridge, Dr. King was with them, and they had amassed thousands of people who had come from all over the country to join them. This time, as they approached the other side of the bridge, again, the Sheriff and his men were waiting for them. Suddenly, they stepped aside so the protesters could pass. Dr. King stopped. He knelt and prayed. And then he turned around and walked back. They didn’t pass over the bridge that day. He got a lot of flak for that. But he said he would rather people be angry at him than see them attacked and killed. Some considered this an act of a cowardice, but it took great courage to listen to God’s voice and follow it as a leader, even when he knew it wasn’t going to be popular. Dr. King took time to pray his way through what was ahead, and God told him this wasn’t the time to go forward.

The next time they crossed over the bridge was God's time. Over 3,000 people marched from Selma and by the time they arrived in Montgomery, there were 25,000.

Throughout the movie, the cloud of death hangs heavy. The risk and sacrifice of those who answered God’s call to march for justice was never forgotten. There were those who lost their lives in the fight. Martin Luther King was one of them, but he was not alone. Seeing other humans treated like something less than human always brings me to tears, whether I’m witnessing it firsthand or in a movie. The brutality in Selma took me through my stash of Kleenex before we had gotten to the half-way mark. Since I was a little girl when this happened and I only remember catching glimpses of it on T.V., it was hard to comprehend how all this was going on while I was riding my bike and climbing trees in Hamilton, Ohio without a care in the world. I was especially moved by those whites who were a part of the movement and were killed for their actions. I didn’t know about them. And I had to wonder if I would have had that kind of courage. I have stood on the side of justice and participated in peaceful protests many times, but I never thought it could result in the loss of my life. I’d like to believe I would have been there with them in Alabama, but I doubt that I have that kind of conviction and courage. Some of my tears during Selma were tears of humility and contrition.

You might say that it was a religious experience for me because I heard God speaking to me through this story from my history that I never really knew. And God also spoke to me about how God speaks. The voice of God demands a response. How will I be changed? And how will I respond?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holding on for Dear Life

When I go to see my grandbaby Nicholas, I give his parents a date night so they can spend some time alone together while I stay home and babysit. (It’s quite a sacrifice on my part.) What they may not realize is that this isn’t really about them. It’s about ME. They think it’s their date night, but that’s really just a ruse to get them out of the way for MY date night with Nick.

Well, on my last date night with three-month-old Nick, he was fussing about going to sleep, as usual. I held him and rocked him singing my go-to lullaby for the babies in my life, “Silent Night.” When I got to, “…sleep in heavenly peace”, he was doing just that. So I stopped singing and studied the sweet angel sleeping in my arms. Filled with love to overflowing, I couldn’t contain it all, and that love spilled out through my eyes and ran down my cheeks.

Suddenly, Nick’s eyes popped open and he gave me a huge smile from ear to ear. Well, that just made the tears flow all the more. Then, I saw him taking a closer look at me and, for some reason, the sight of Nana with tears tickled him and he let out one of those delight-filled baby belly laughs. Which, of course made me laugh. And then Nick laughed back at me. Which made me laugh. And Nick laughed back at me again. And then he closed his eyes and resumed sleeping in heavenly peace. 

Oh, my! The two of us shared an incredible moment of joy. He won’t remember it, but I will, for the rest of my life. Sometimes these days when life seems to be getting the best of me, I’ll stop and think of that moment of joy with Nick and I can’t help but smile. (If you’ve seen me randomly smiling lately and you’ve wondered -- what’s up with that?-- now you know.)

Joy is such a gift for us, isn’t it? It’s not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is fleeting, it comes and goes depending on the circumstances of our lives. But joy runs deep. Joy abides within us. Joy pulls us through turmoil and trouble, struggle and sorrow.

Christmas joy comes to us every year when the earth is dark and cold, just when we need it the most. We fix our eyes on a baby in a cradle, surrounded by cows and sheep. His adoring parents watch his every breath. On a starry night, he is greeted by shepherds and angels. What could be more joyful than this holy moment filled with promise?

And yet, if we know how the rest of the story goes, we also know that this child’s story isn’t all sweetness and light.

A couple years ago, Clarkie’s dads noticed that he was distraught over the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Clarkie is a tender-hearted child and he couldn’t bear the thought of it. “Why is Jesus going to be born again? Then they’re just going to kill him all over again!” It was too much for him and he was in tears. Clarkie was right. Beneath the radiant joy, shadows of sorrow are lurking.

As I hold my new grandson in my arms, I try to imagine all that he will experience in his life. Maybe he’ll be smart, or athletic, or funny. He may grow up to have a little boy of his own. He may be successful or famous. But I know that his life will also be like any other life and it will include pain, and heartbreak, and death. I can’t bring myself to think of it for more than a millisecond.

But life does include sorrow, as well as joy. And that’s exactly why Christmas joy is so important.

Have you ever seen one of those old cowboy movies where they’re out on a cattle drive and the cowboy leads the way only to discover that he’s stepped into quicksand? He thought everything was fine and all of a sudden he’s sinking fast.

Have you ever felt like that in your life? Like you’re going along fine and then all of a sudden it feels like you’re sinking? You’re going down and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. Things are desperate. They may even feel hopeless.

Well, in the old cowboy movies, they always throw the one who is sinking a rope. The cowboy grabs hold of that rope and hangs on for dear life as he’s pulled to safety. That’s what joy is for us. When we’re sinking in quicksand, it’s a rope for us to grab onto and hold on for dear life.

Thank God for the gift of joy that comes to us at Christmas. It’s a joy that we can hang onto all the way through the cross. For the story of salvation is bookended with joy, isn’t it? At the end of our worship service on Christmas Eve, Ron played the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The last time we heard it at Holy Trinity was when he played it at Easter. There is joy in the manger that carries us through the pain and sorrow of the cross and brings us at the last to the joy of the empty tomb.

Joy is God’s gift to us at Christmas. Grab onto it, and hold on for dear life!