Monday, February 27, 2012

Warning: slippery slope ahead!

“That’s a slippery slope...” It’s one of those phrases I seem to hear everywhere I turn these days and it makes me cringe. It may be intended as a cautionary statement, but I have trouble hearing it that way. It sounds judgmental to me, like a way of keeping me in my place: You’d better be careful about where you’re going, Nancy, because you are coming dangerously close to slipping away into the abyss. And when you do, be assured that I will be standing on solid ground, waving goodbye to you from above. Yeah, I hear, ya.

There was a time when I would be concerned if someone warned me that I’m on a slippery slope. Fearing rejection, I only dared proceed with great caution. I needed to think carefully about how far I was willing to go, weighing every word. But, these days, the slippery-slope warning seems to have the opposite effect on me.

It’s my suspicion that often, when someone warns me that I'm nearing a slippery slope, it says more about them than it does about me. For some reason, they're really uncomfortable with what I'm saying; I'm not thinking within the limits of their expectations. And it’s dangerous, all right. Not for me, but for them! Their fear isn’t about the slippery slope I may be approaching. It’s about threatening to mess up the nice, tidy, little world they have created for themselves. Rather than warning me that I'm approaching a slippery slope, it would be more honest to say, “Nancy, I’m afraid you’re about to say something that challenges my way of thinking. Please stop!”

If the slippery-slope warning, so commonly used today, had been around in New Testament times, we would be reading it in the gospels. It sounds a lot like the things the religious leaders said to Jesus. Be careful about the subversive messages you're communicating in those parables, Jesus, that’s a slippery slope. Don’t mess with the law about healing on the Sabbath, Jesus, that’s a slippery slope. You’ve got to stop eating with the riff-raff, Jesus, that’s a slippery slope. Try to control your temper in the temple, Jesus, that’s a slippery slope.

Come to think of it, is there anyone who ever did anything worthwhile in the history of the world who didn’t spend a lot of time navigating what many considered to be a slippery slope? I can’t think of a single one, can you?

If I find myself near a place that some people would warn me is a "slippery slope", before I back away, I need to discern whether it could be God who led me there. If it is, I’m praying I have the courage to strap on a pair of skis and go for it. Cowabunga!

Even God needs sticky notes

There have been a lot of amazing inventions during my lifetime. Inventions that have changed my world: microwave ovens, computers, cell phones. But when I think of all the inventions that have enhanced my life, perhaps the one I appreciate the most these days is the sticky note. Although 3M claims it as their creation, the inventor was actually a guy by the name of Alan Amron, who came up with the idea in 1973. I owe Mr. Amron a debt of gratitude. Especially since I’ve been having more and more trouble with a chronic condition known as CRS, that is, Can’t Remember… Stuff. Sticky notes have become an essential part of my life.

Although my reliance on sticky notes may be a sign that my mind is starting to show some wear and tear, I’m okay with that. Especially since I realized that even God’s been known to rely on a sticky note. You see, the concept of the sticky note goes all the way back to the book of Genesis.

You may have been told, as a child, that rainbows are to remind us that God will never send a flood to destroy the earth again. But if you read Genesis 9 carefully, that’s not exactly where it goes. God says, "When I bring the clouds, and when I see the bow in the clouds, I will remember the everlasting covenant between me and all that is in the earth." The rainbow isn’t a reminder for us. It’s a reminder for God.

Back before the LGBT community used the rainbow as their banner, back before Jessie Jackson used it as a symbol for the inclusion of people of color, back before the Care Bears slid down rainbows, before Dorothy sang about going somewhere over the rainbow, or leprechauns used rainbows as a place to store their treasures… back before all that, the rainbow had another meaning. The rainbow was God’s sticky note in the sky.

Lest God forget what he promised after the flood, he had the rainbow to remind him. He wasn’t going to do that again. He would not be a God of destruction and death. That’s not the way his people would know him. He would be a God of life and resurrection.

The next time you see a rainbow, give thanks for God’s sticky note in the sky. It’s a sign of hope, a promise of life, and an assurance of God’s never-ending love for all creation.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Here I come a-waffling

If there’s one thing I hate about being a pastor in an urban setting, it’s having people stop by the church for financial assistance. They need gas, or food, or a place to stay. I never know what to do and I waffle a lot in my response.

For a long time I just went with my gut. But then I learned that my gut wasn’t very reliable. When I helped someone, I often discovered that they were playing me. But if I sent the next person away empty-handed, I felt cold-hearted and judgmental.

The things Jesus taught about the poor don’t help much. I don’t think he had my ministry setting in mind when he said, “I was hungry and you fed me.” Did he? I don’t know.

Back when I began my ministry at Holy Trinity on The Plaza I soon learned that poor people have a network and news travels fast. If I helped one person, within days, another ten would show up at my door.

My general approach now is to tell them that we work with agencies within the community and I refer them to the right place. When I do this, I try to convince myself that I’m off the hook. Occasionally, someone will pull so hard at my heartstrings that I’ll dig into my own wallet and give them some money. Sometimes I also feel compelled to reward people for the sheer creativity of their story. But usually, an encounter with a poor person in my office just leaves me feeling damned if I help them and damned if I don’t.

A woman stopped by the church this week. She told me her story as she sat on the loveseat in my office and cried. As I listened, I was torn in two. The cynical part of me was suspicious of every word that came out of her mouth. But the compassionate part of me wanted to give her a twenty. What should I do? Then I remembered that I hadn’t yet been to the bank and I had $0 in my purse. So that was that. I apologized and sent her on to the neighborhood food cupboard.

Today, I was going to pick up food for my dog and cat and I accidently turned too soon and ended up in the parking lot at the Waffle House. This is the same Waffle House I used to frequent when I first moved to Charlotte. Back then, I was so excited to be living in a state where they had Waffle Houses that I ate there every Friday on my day off. The novelty eventually wore off, and I grew to become more concerned about what I put into my body, so I hadn’t been to a Waffle House in years. And now, today, finding myself in the parking lot, it was more than I could resist. So I went inside.

While I was sitting at the counter, enjoying a crispy waffle, I watched the waitress working away, and I started thinking about what her life must be like. I have no idea what she earns, but surely she is one of the “working poor.” She makes less than minimum wage and depends upon tips. But she’s serving a crappy shift with only a few people in the restaurant. And she’s working in a place where the food is dirt cheap.

There’s something terribly unfair about the way waiters and waitresses are paid. It’s not based on how hard they work, or what they deserve, but on the cost of the meals their customers buy. If I go into a restaurant and have a glass of water to drink with my meal, it costs me nothing, and the waiter gets a percentage of nothing. But if I order a fancy-schmancy martini, I pay through the nose, and the waiter gets a nice tip. Does it require any less work to bring me the water than it does the martini? I was ruminating about the injustice of the whole system as I watched my waitress do her job. Does she think about such things? Is she as outraged by this as I am? Of course, my outrage is over the idea of it all. If she considers the injustice, it’s her reality.

So my waffle was $2.80. A twenty percent tip would come to a walloping 56 cents.

I thought about the woman who cried on my loveseat the day before and how I didn’t know what to do about it. And here was a dear soul standing before me who hadn’t asked me for anything. Instead, she served me cheerfully and efficiently. Just then, I, the waffler, experienced a moment of clarity at the Waffle House. I handed my waitress a twenty and told her to keep the change. The smile on her face was worth every penny.

To be honest, I was feeling pretty damn good about myself. Then I went next door and spent $104.17 on food for my dog and cat.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More than you can handle?

Back when I was still living in Ohio, in the fall, my dear friend Donna and I would make a trip up to Canada, to Niagara-on-the-Lake, for the Shaw Festival. She and I had a similar outlook on life, which says that too much of a good thing is usually going to end up leading to a bad thing. And on this particular trip, we were the luckiest two women on earth. It was like one moment of bliss after another: the meals, the B & B where we stayed, and the marvelous plays. We’d walk into a theatre to see if we could get rush tickets and end up with the best seats in the house. Then we’d sit down in our primo seats, which we got for half price, and smile at each other.

But the next thing you know, we’d both get this horrified look on our faces as it dawned on us that, “Something bad is going to happen.” It became our mantra on the whole trip. Wonderful things kept happening to us and every time, we’d shake our heads realizing that this was just too good and we were going to pay for it. “Something bad is going to happen.” And you know what, eventually it did. Not on the trip, but after we got home, Donna learned the devastating news that her daughter was getting a divorce.

I don’t know where I ever got into this something-bad-is-going-to-happen mentality. Perhaps it was from too many years of watching “Guiding Light” on T.V. You know how it is in soap operas. When they get to the point where everyone is happy, and they’re all back together again and they’re laughing, and our favorite couple is getting married and the bride is looking happier than we’ve ever seen her. Then, out of the blue, what happens? She coughs. And you know what that means because you’ve been down this road so many times before. Something bad is going to happen.

But, you know what? Something bad is always going to happen. Sometimes we do stupid things and bring trouble upon ourselves or sometimes it just happens for no apparent reason. Eventually, people get sick. People die. It’s unavoidable. That’s reality. Something bad is going to happen. You can count on it.

Life is spent in the valley with momentary visits to the mountaintop. That’s our reality. And in the valley, sooner or later, something bad happens. But it’s the time on the mountain that gets us through the rough times in the valley. We can wring our hands and fret about it, afraid to enjoy ourselves when life seems too good to be true. But then we’re squandering the gift God has given us.

God gives us moments that fill us, and if we’re wise, we’ll not waste them. When we can party, we party. When we can sing, we sing. When we can dance, we dance. When we can savor the splendor of God’s created universe, we savor it. When we can surround ourselves with people who fill us with joy, we do. When someone offers to love us, we let them. When we can lose ourselves in mystical moments of transcendence with God, however those may happen for us, we do. When we can draw upon the amazing strength of the Community of Christ gathered, we do. When we’re given a time apart to hear God’s Word for us, we’re all ears. When we’re invited to gather at the table for Holy Communion, we’re at the altar with hands outstretched. So many times, in so many ways, God fills us with his presence. Then when we return to reality, and we’re being drained by the pressures and challenges of life, we have a reservoir of blessings to draw from.

Have you ever heard the saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle”? I hate that! Because it’s not true, on two counts. First, I would hesitate to say that God is the one who gives it to us. And second, I’ve seen plenty of times when people have more than they can handle. But there is something I’ve learned to be true for myself in those times when it seems like I’m dealing with more than I can handle. And it’s this: God gives me what I need so that I can handle more than I ever thought I could. I suspect it’s true for all of us, when we’re open to receive the blessings God sends our way.

Whenever you’re on the mountaintop, may you milk it for all it’s worth. Then you can take it with you on your journey in the valley. And you'll be able to say that God has truly blessed your life. Not because nothing bad ever happens to you, but because God has given you all that you need for the journey. And you'll find yourself handling more than you ever thought you could.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

God messing with us: the deeper story of our lives

There is a lot more to us than the story that is told in high school yearbooks or on business resumes or in obituaries. It’s a story that’s veiled to the eyes of the world, but it is the deeper story of who we are. It’s our God story.

A couple of blogs ago I wrote about being woven into the fabric of God*. Each of us has a story that is like a thread. And our stories, our threads, come together with all the other stories of God’s people. They’re all woven together into the fabric of God’s story.

The thread of our deeper story has nothing to do with the places we’ve gone to school, or our employment history, or how many grandchildren we have. It's more than a list of our accomplishments or losses. It has nothing to do with the places we’ve lived or the amount of material wealth we’ve been able to accumulate. The deeper story of who we are is unfolding beneath that surface story. It may even be hidden from our own awareness. But if we’re paying attention, we know that this story is moving us forward through times of transformation, with God pulling us toward places we never dreamed of going.

It kind of works like this. We have this way of looking at our lives, a narrative that we imagine for ourselves. We know the way things work in our world and that’s what we expect. But then something happens that we don’t expect, something that challenges the way we look at our lives. And we have to adjust our story so that it’s big enough to contain that new experience. In the process, we grow. In big and small ways, we’re transformed. That's the way God messes with us.

We may be able to recognize the God moments in our lives when they happen, but at the time we’re not always sure about what they mean. That’s how it seems to work. We grow through experience, but it’s not just experience alone that leads to transformation. We need to find meaning from our experience. That happens when we give ourselves the time we need to process it.

In my lifetime I’ve had the opportunity to know many people who have had a close encounter with death and lived to talk about it. Whether surviving a near fatal car crash, or a serious heart attack, or some other narrow escape – they have been given another chance at life. And I always find it interesting what people do with an experience like that. There are those who are transformed by such an event. They use it to re-evaluate their lives and they consider what’s really most important for them as they go on with the new life they’ve been given. They’re much more aware of their relationship with God. The deeper story of their life that they once kept in the background is suddenly lived in the foreground.

But that doesn’t happen for everyone. Some people are given a second chance at life after a brush with death and they are unphased by it. Nothing changes for them. They continue their lives as if nothing has happened: satisfied with broken relationships, still caught in destructive behaviors, with no awareness of the deeper meaning of their lives beyond the normal day-to-day stuff that occupies their time. And when I’m with people like that, who miss the opportunity for transformation, I think, what a waste. They went through all that for nothing!

Of course, the same may be said for any of us, whether we’ve had a brush with death or not. We have experiences in our lives that can lead to transformation, but if we don’t take the time to search for the meaning in those experiences they’ve been wasted on us.

Socrates once said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I don’t know if it’s not worth living, but the unexamined life could easily become pointless, as the deeper stories of our lives are lost on us when we aren’t paying attention.

Are you aware of the deeper story of your life? Can you look beyond the story the world has created for you and consider the story God is creating for you? How has God been messing with your life? Where does your story meet God’s story? What is your thread that is being woven into the fabric of God?

* see "Hanging on by a Thread"

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Meeting the boyfriend

Tomorrow I’m going to meet my daughter’s new boyfriend for the first time. He’s not a “new” boyfriend, really. They’ve been together for a year, but I’ve not laid eyes on the man, so he’s new to me. Gretchen says he’s excited about meeting me. Hmmm. Does that mean he’s looking forward to the pleasure of my company, or is he making a meal of his fingernails? I would expect that he’s a bit nervous about it. And it might surprise him to know that I am, too. After all, this person is a very important part of my daughter’s life, so I want him to become a part of my life, too.

Mind you, this isn’t an audition or an interview. I won’t be giving him a thumbs up or down for the position of Gretchen’s BF. That was Gretchen’s call. And yet, the whole time we’re together, there will be an elephant in the room. It’s called, meeting-the-parent’s-approval. Try as we might to downplay it, we all know it’s there. And, truth be told, it's always there with the parents of our significant others. Whether it’s the first day you meet them, or decades have passed, parents are ever vigilant, looking out for their babies. It’s in our parental DNA. There’s no fighting it, so you might as well accept it. In other words, try not to piss us off. If you do, there will be hell to pay.

The problem, of course, is that you don’t know what might be the parent’s hot button until after you’ve pushed it. Although I doubt that my daughter’s BF reads my blog, he may after today, because I’m going to tell him what it is for me.

Yo! I’m talkin’ to you, BF of my one and only daughter! This is inside information that I have never shared with any of Gretchen’s past BFs, so take it to heart.

There are many things you could do to irritate me, such as: quote Bible verses at me, pour Texas Pete all over everything you eat, badmouth my dog, fondle Gretchen in my presence, or beat me at Scrabble... to name a few. But none of those are deal-breakers. And trust me, I won’t be impressed if you agree with everything I say, are overly helpful around the house, and treat me like the Queen Mother. Don’t try to schmooze me because I am unschmoozeable. (Something I learned as a kid from June Cleaver, who was way too smart to be schmoozed by Eddie Haskell.)

What matters the most to this mama is nothing that you can control. It’s the way my daughter is when she is with you. Now, I’m not just talking about the way she may defer to you or laugh at your jokes. It’s more than that, and it takes more than a few days to see how it plays out. Unlike some mothers, I’m not overly concerned about Gretchen finding someone who will protect her. She’s already had her heart broken deeply in her life and proven that she can survive. Nor am I looking for a good provider. No daughter of mine needs a man to provide for her. I’m not even one of those parents who says, “I just want you to be with someone who makes you happy”, because I don’t think anyone else is responsible for my daughter’s happiness. (Nor do I think that being happy is the goal for our lives.)

What I want the most for my daughter (and anyone I love, for that matter) is that she find wholeness in her life and become the person God created her to be. She will always be growing and becoming Gretchen; it’s a life-long journey. And, along the way, God will send people to accompany her. I was blessed to be the first, but I know I won’t be the last.

More than anything else, I hope that any person who becomes a significant part of Gretchen’s life will help her grow to become her true self. I don’t expect you to do it for her; I expect you to be working toward your own place of wholeness. What I hope is that you won’t stand in her way, smother or stifle her. Instead, cheer her on. Listen to her. Hold her when she cries. When necessary, tell her the hard truth she may not want to hear. Remind her that she is loved for no other reason than because she is Gretchen. Celebrate the person she is becoming. And love yourself enough to expect the same from her.

That’s what I want for my daughter and the man she loves. I don’t think it’s expecting too much, and yet I know it’s not easy to find. No, I won’t be able to see it in one weekend. But I pray it’s something I’ll have the joy of seeing in my lifetime.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Miffed about the Media and the Marriage Amendment

I’m miffed at the local media over the way they have framed the upcoming North Carolina vote on Amendment 1. And I’m getting miffeder and miffeder with each day that passes. So much so that, for the first time in my life, I actually wrote a letter to the editor of The Charlotte Observer. Here’s my beef.

Every time they print a news article about Amendment 1, it is called the “Gay Marriage Ban” or the “Amendment to Prohibit Same-gender Marriage.” By continuing to label the amendment as such, the Observer and other so-called news sources are distorting the truth and unduly influencing the way the public views the amendment. The implication is that in May we will be voting on whether or not to approve same-gender marriages. Don’t believe that. It’s a big fat lie.

If you’re interested in learning the facts, and not just the media’s spin on things, here’s how Amendment 1 is worded: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State." This amendment affects all couples who are not married. Yes, that includes same-gender couples who might like to marry, but are already prohibited to do so by North Carolina law (and don’t need a constitutional amendment to tell them what they already know). But it also affects opposite-gender couples who are unmarried. Although the state may allow them to be married, some choose not to marry for a variety of reasons.

I’ve known older, retired couples who can’t marry because one of them would lose a pension and they couldn’t afford to live on the reduction in income. I’ve also known heterosexual couples who have refused to marry, out of principle, until all couples are allowed to marry. But whatever their reasons, the fact is, they also will be affected by this amendment.

Amendment 1 will affect hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians: both gay and straight couples, both adults and children. It threatens child custody laws, domestic violence laws, domestic partner benefits, and end-of-life directives. The list could go on and on. It says that the only couples who are protected under the law are men and women who are married.

I would call this the “Discrimination Amendment”, but you won’t see that in any of the headlines of the Charlotte Observer. If I sound angry, I am. I’m miffed at the media for distorting the truth, although I realize they didn’t create it.

I can’t understand how those who represent us in Raleigh allowed this to happen. The constitution isn’t intended to prescribe discrimination against a certain group of people, is it? And now they think it will be helpful to take it to the masses, to put it to a vote? As if we weren’t already polarized enough. It grieves me to the core.

My point is, this is not just about gay marriage. Don't think that when you vote on Amendment 1 you're going to be voting for or against same-gender marriages in North Carolina. In fact, I think it’s very possible to be against gay marriage and oppose this amendment for a variety of reasons: 1)We already have a law that prohibits same gender couples to marry. 2) It is inappropriate as a constitutional amendment. 3) It is allowing discrimination to become the law of the land. 4) It has far-reaching legal implications for ALL domestic partnerships other than those within a marriage. 5) It is wrong for a certain religious group to impose their beliefs on others by making them law. 6) It reflects badly on our state, and that’s bad for business.

I can’t bring myself to think of how the passage of this amendment could affect our state and so many of the families I love. I know that North Carolina is the only Southern state that doesn’t already have such an amendment. (And I’ve been proud of that!) I also know that every time a similar amendment in other states has come before the people for a vote, invariably it has passed. (Although all these amendments are worded differently so people aren’t always voting on the same thing.) And so, it scares me.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I’m an emotional mess over this: I’m angry, I’m grief-stricken, I’m scared. But I also am hopeful. I know that if the people of North Carolina will get off their duffs and vote, and if they are given the facts, all will be well. And that, of course, is why I’m so concerned that they be given the facts and not biased “news” in the media.

I’m praying that we’ll use our heads when we vote on this amendment in North Carolina. And I’m praying that we’ll be the ones who turn the tide on the introduction of fear-based laws that discriminate against those who are not-like-us and threaten the freedom we cherish so much as Americans.