Tuesday, January 10, 2017

oil.


"Anointed on Wednesdays"

We mix lavender with a jar from the top shelf
in the old kitchen cupboard,
cooking oil made holy and wonderful with strong scent.
Sometimes we laugh into this ordinary mystery
while the bowl is passed around.
We say the words
moving our fingers over the temples of strangers and friends –
up and down, side to side.
Sure, it is just oil.
But the minutes are sacred since
we stand so close together,
seeing each other with truth and courage
speaking the ancient recipe for relief and belonging:
You are a beloved child of God.
If you are standing near Linda
you hold the bowl for her, too;
if you are with Johnny
you offer your eyes and gently guide his hand to another.
There is no rush.
We are not more or better anointed when this is accomplished easily
so we move the gift about with openness and wonder.
Her eyelashes flutter because it is good news.
He holds your gaze because he needs it.
Then you pass the bowl with anticipation
for your turn
because after all these years
there is a rush to this claim on your life.
When you notice its shine in the mirror that night

you are glad to be chosen beyond yourself.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

squished together.


Portions of a Christmas Eve sermon.

Friends in Christ, God has come. Christ is with us. Grace and peace to you from the God who shows up tonight whether we’re ready or not, because God is all in and we are fiercely loved beyond our wildest dreams. Amen.

The Christmas story begins by pinpointing this moment among secular, political superstars: Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Lest we wander into tonight as a fairy tale or myth, Luke reminds us that God became flesh in the midst of an Empire – in the midst of borders and policy and wars and oppression and pomp. His birthdate is marked by current events and a Roman calendar, much like ours.

And then the tale takes a sharp turn toward the Plain Janes and Joe Blows:
  • A pregnant teenager awkwardly timing her contractions, who just months ago was one prophetic dream away from being scorned or stoned right out of history
  • A dutiful patriarch heading home to be counted, prepare for judgment and gossip from fourth cousins about his pregnant fiancĂ©
  • And shepherds, the hired help working the night shift for the sake of other peoples’ sheep, smelly and grazing along the edge of Bethlehem where they are so easily forgotten and unseen.
 Travelers and Tenants. They don’t have much power to wield in the world, but this message of a savior’s birth draws them together to witness, to adore, to participate in something brand new and much bigger than their ordinary, individual lives.

The angel appeared to the ones we’d least expect, barely named and on the fringe, so small to be tangled up in a tale with Augustus and Quirinius.  Even so, they are the ones noticed and claimed by the announcement each time: Do not be afraid. This is happening. God is all in. Salvation is here and you get to be part of it. Come and adore him.

It’s a beautiful thought, these ordinary people – Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds – they are drawn to the manger through fear, angels, dreams, and wonder. It sounds like an invitation show up with all kinds of people you didn’t think would be invited – to be started by your own inclusion and then startled again that travelers and tenants of every kind are there too.
Christ is born! This is for me! Oh, wow. And for him. And her. And even them?

And yet our depiction of the nativity can seem like a quiet haunt apart from the census and crowds, one barn in the shadows of town.


Our family has a small wooden nativity scene that is treated as a very interactive toy in our living room. Last week I found the three magi lined up neatly near one sheep, a shepherd, and a headless Mary.

Yikes. I imagined that Mary had, quite literally lost her mind at 39 weeks pregnant and these visitors had showed up too early, unwelcome. Jesus hadn’t been born yet and Joseph was missing in action, probably at a CVS buying Tums, ice cream, and diapers.

Over the course of the next week, Mary’s head was reglued and we found Joseph under the couch. Tonight baby Jesus joins them in the manger. But still too set apart from the rest of the world.

I guess I've been haunted by the minimalism of this birth announcement: its isolation and rejection. Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

Completely turned away? This would have been impossible for Joseph, a son of David. Naming the particular patriarchs in his ancestral line would have required even distant relatives to provide hospitality, to find them a place, to welcome them home.

The word used here for inn appears only one other time in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus and the disciples share the Last Supper in the upper room of a private home. This sent me seeking more information about ancient Israeli architecture. What did houses look like, anyway? 

It didn't take me long to learn that most Israeli homes in that region were three stories.
  1. The first level was a common living space with a dirt or straw floor. This space had an adjoining stable and, on chilly nights, the animals were brought in to keep warm.
  2. The second level was a more personal sleeping and eating space for the family and guests, a warm place that was likely already booked solid with visitors for the census.
  3. The third floor was open air and might have been used for laundry and work, but too exposed for sleeping.

Perhaps verse 7 tells us that there was no place for them in the upper room, where privacy and comforts were available. Instead, Mary and Joseph bedded down among the animals in from the chill, welcomed into the most chaotic, messy, vulnerable, and public part of the family’s home.

I’ll admit that I’m falling for this translation tonight because I want to believe that
  • Jesus is born into our tiny foyers that never fit all the shoes and coats
  • Mary and Joseph were navigating a situation in which the futon wouldn't pull out because the manger was in the way
  • curious relatives listened to labor pains from upstairs, simultaneously excited and irritated about one more baby coming to be counted by the census
I want to believe that Jesus was born into these thin and sacred spaces
  • between public and private
  • between hospitality and good intentions,
  • between landowners and the animals who graze the land
I want to believe that Jesus has come into our hinge moments
  • the cracks in our souls
  • between lonely tears and the warm embrace of a friend’s consolation
  • into elections that trigger every emotion
  • at dinner tables filled with family tension and conversational landmines
I want to believe that there was at least one introvert in the house that night who wandered up to the third story to get some air, who saw the star brightly shining above and thought, 

“It’s beautiful.  It’s shining just for me and yet it is surely for each of them downstairs, too. The ones tucked away and the ones up late gossiping. The ones snoring softly and the ones hogging the bathroom. The ones I was so excited to see and the ones who fill me with fear, loathing, and trepidation. It shines for all of them, whether they see it or not.” 

A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

I think I will add two stories to my little wooden nativity set. For the Christmas story is not a fable set in the seclusion of a peaceful barn. No, it is a story that squishes us together with hospitality that says, We’ll make room. We'll find you something.

It invites us to be together under one roof with a whole cast of characters, for better or worse, reimaging family and relationships and home through the Christ child, who says,

“This is the Kingdom of God. The Empire will continue to count you as tokens and numbers, but in here you are family, however distant. You belong, you are welcome. What you see is what you get. It’s a mess, but here are some swaddling clothes and don’t mind the animals.”

This Christmas, hear the invitation to come inside where it is warm enough. We offer what we have to give because we belong to each other for the sake of the good. And, in the chaos and vulnerability between what is public and private, we are met by the Son of God who sees our true selves and decides

Yes. Yes! This is the perfect place to be born.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

woe.

Chapter 23: A Retelling
Jesus denounces the "Good Christians"

Then Jesus said to the crowds and the disciples, “The church goers - those inside the structure and comforts of the institution - they know scripture and tradition well, so do whatever they teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

They bury themselves in presentation and good order, which heaps expectations on those who do not already subscribe to the checklists of their own pious creation. They put on their Sunday best and greet you with simple pleasantries, “How are you? Good! Great!”, avoiding your jagged edges and damaged parts. These are precisely the pieces of you that need the body of Christ, but these things are messy, inconvenient, and distract from their sensibility and success at discipleship.

They will speak about their 
baptism
confirmation
volunteering
position 
as accomplishments earned and gold stars on the road to salvation, flattered that others have noticed their noble efforts. They love their pastors and priests, their teachers and mentors, who have abandoned the call to justice for administrative details and sanitized the gospel so it can compliment the Empire’s more imminent demands.

The Good Christians have forgotten to resist what is evil, providing so much pleasant nature and certainty while they stray from humility and mercy, preferring pomp and circumstance, devotional books in the bathroom, or the green pastures of platitudes.

But woe to you, insiders! You have wasted what is risked through the incarnation, preferring a valley of dry bones to dance on, never wondering about the oppression of those bones in the first place. You have glamorized the agony of the cross by still seeking salvation yourselves. You have ignored the resurrection with your comfort zones and your denial of suffering and death.

You fear God left when the the temple was destroyed by Babylon, that you were abandoned and empty. But you are void whenever you claim my body while simultaneously protecting yourselves from transformation. Woe to you when you push my kingdom away preferring the Empire; fruit from the tree that cannot satisfy; your own tower of mortality crumbling. Woe to you when you hear my woe as a threat to all you treasure, for they are pure freedom and you are missing it.


All that you hold dear and claim to be mine will be vacant until you see me coming and say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Sometimes I read a biblical passage and I'm quick to deflect its conviction onto others, refusing to accept its deep knowledge of me. I retold Matthew 23 because I cannot deny my status as a hypocritical insider: I robe up. I teach. I protect tradition. I avoid the fact that, daily, discipleship asks me to lose my life. In reengaging this chapter, I was finally able to hear both the threat and the freedom.

Perhaps you, too, are living on the inside and holding fast to everything penultimate. What is Jesus asking you to put down for the sake of truth, justice, and the body of Christ?

Friday, November 18, 2016

confession.

A post-election confession of faith.
For my children.

Beloved Ones,

I was not alive for the glory days of the American Christian Church. To be honest, I'm not convinced they lived up to their hindsight hype anyway.  I grew up in the Christendom Hangover, a generation that has finally needed to acknowledge a changing world, an imperfect institution, and that pain that accompanies change too late.  These things have called piety and pride into question while we continue to struggle with denial and the world’s measurements of success. The Mainline Protestant denominations have arrived first, but we are all on our way. It's an awkward, beautiful, and frustrating time to be a Christian in America.

There are plenty of reasons to wander away from Christianity these days (there always have been), but I remain for three reasons that I gift to you with all I have:

1. I know Jesus.
Jesus did not come to increase our piety or to provide a salvation back-up plan or to prove us right or to institute congregational country clubs or because God desires the cheap peace we prefer to conflict.  

The Incarnation is a story about God going all in, doing all the things that we cannot, meeting us in all the moments we’d rather deny, and then claiming us for something more beautiful and risky than what we’d choose ourselves. Again and again, Jesus gets in the face of our self-serving technicalities and fear of the other. He scoffs at our proof texting, our need to be right, and the ways we hide behind the law. He sees the nameless, voiceless people on the edge of the scene and casts them in lead roles, shifting power until the fragile and ever-comfortable ones are either in awe or livid. He keeps erasing the lines we draw, calling us to lose our lives for the sake of someone else.

I can’t think of any scripture passage in which Jesus trades all that important and subversive stuff in because he’s more threatened by transgender bathrooms or thinks climate change science faith-based or he's busy shaming women into keeping their unborn babies. Of course he cares about all these things: about bodies, personal identity, stewardship of creation, and the potential for life - but he never addresses the hot topics without first going after our judgmental motivations. He knows we hide behind hyperbole and worst case scenarios to avoid the deepest injustices: systemic oppression, stigmatization of the other, shattered human dignity, and wealth disparity. 

Jesus was a brown man born to unmarried parents who had to register so the Empire could watch them. He was a refugee who fled by night and crossed boarders for the sake of safety and dreams. He told the truth about justice and privilege. He embodied an unwelcome sacrifice. And when his holiness and suffering made good intentioned, faithful people terribly threatened, he was killed like a common criminal. How often white Christian America forgets to tell these things about God made flesh!

2. I know the church.
Jesus’ life and ministry is an invitation into his body, which is the church. Before we sanitized and compromised this holy welcome for the sake of building an institution pleasing to the Roman Empire, we had a radical and dangerous call to resist the establishment, status quo, and power. Jesus spent his life teaching people how to die:

Do not be afraid. Do not worry about earthly things. The Kingdom of God is not a zero sum game or a transaction. Lose your scorecard. Give away your power and privilege in this life because I have come for the least of these and all of these. Do not hoard your own freedom at the cost of others. You have not and cannot earn you value in God’s eyes, nor are you charged with determining the worth of another human being.  Confront injustice and call out piety as it distracts from the gospel. Put yourself in positions that feel uncomfortable so that someone else can be comfortable.

We are introduced to this stark reality in baptism. Through the water and Word, we die to all fear and hate, all ease and pretentiousness, all the illusions about achieving salvation ourselves. The sacrament carries us into community with others who are dying to these same things and a flawed but faithful institution that is supposed to be doing the same, giving itself away as a resistance to the Empire’s power - its comfort and oppression - as glimpses of the Kingdom here and now.

3. I know myself.
I am a sucker for the sticker charts of this world. I am wooed by the gratification of my own achievements and efforts. I trick myself into thinking I’m supposed to go for gold and, if I do not set a world record for righteousness on my own, Jesus will swoop in with a high-five to fill in the gaps. Lord, have mercy. You did not come to earth and die so that I might score a little extra credit.

I am a sinner who needs this kind of God and King to stand between me and the Empire with a different voice; one that does not settle for compromise or excuse my responsibility. Christ would never tell us to calm down in the face of inequity, violation, corruption, and hate.

Children, we are made in the image of a God who died for us, but not so that we may be comfortable, right, unmoved or in charge. We have been saved so that we can speak up when the bar for human dignity is moved away from those who need it, so we can stand up when the oppressed are blamed for their own oppression, and so we can push back when cheap peace is a cover up for lazy morality and injustice.

We need a God who has already accomplished everything so that we have no excuse but to be the Church in the name of Jesus, a body that dies and rises to what is true, confessing its compromises, using and releasing its power for the sake of the inconvenient ones we wish away. And we need a Church that is breaking - just like the world, just like Jesus, just like me. For in the cracks we find the Kingdom of God, meeting our failure and fear with redemption and justice still unfolding.

I write you this letter because, I believe, someday you will ask me what happened on November 8, 2016. You will want to know how this Jesus and this church welcomed belligerent hate, intolerance, oppression, and abuse of power into the White House.

I will need to explain that, while most Trump supporters don't consider themselves racists, they decided blatant racism was not a deal breaker. I will need to explain that each White House appointment validated the alt-right and white supremacy movement. I will need to explain that white Christian America's great sexual concern was the LGBTQ community instead of a president who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. I will need to explain that white Christian America drown out Jesus' call to welcome the stranger by cultivating terror narratives about refugees. I will need to explain that white Christian America had been dying to itself for some time now, but we still held enough power to oppress others so that we could be "left alone" or hoard the privilege of feeling comfortable in our faith. I will need to explain that white Christian America voted not for the sake of Jesus' life and values, but to preserve our own white privilege. I will not suggest that Hillary Clinton was the Jesus vote. No, no, no. Only that Trump was not.

I will also explain that I could not wring my hands and blame God for inaction and apathy. God has been exasperated and confused by the ways we pin all of our moral and spiritual hopes on politics since 1 Samuel 8.  Instead of opting out, we tried to untangle our hearts from the empty promises of the Empire, returning to the cross to be reminded of our first and primary calling as children of God: to love without bounds and to resist that which oppresses great love.

You will grow up in the rubble of this moment, a new generation of American Christianity yet to be named. I am sorry for the ways this might confuse your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. But, then again, Jesus never said this would be easy. Discipleship is not about winning or being right. So I hope you will fall in love with the Jesus who mends brokenness and meets us in failure. Because in this dying and losing, we feel the weight and necessity of God's fierce commitment to us all and we become part of a body that lives and loves forever. 

Love, Mom


Thursday, November 10, 2016

my place.

I hugged the covers under my chin on Wednesday morning, trying to decide whether I should read my phone or my husband's face for the answer I dreaded. I cried in the shower, wishing I didn't need to face children so soon after the news. My little ones pulled back the curtain and demanded me before I was ready for them. But such is life. Such was everything about yesterday as life ticked on.

I am sad and angry for all the reasons I thought I would be, but also because President-Elect Donald Trump is making me engage my white fragility from a completely different angle. 

You see, I am a straight, white, able-bodied, non-military, English-speaking, documented, Christian person with health insurance made available through my spouse's employment. I am done renting my uterus to unborn children, so the government will leave it alone. I am a tired 35 year-old mother of three, who Trump would consider "a 4 tops", so I don't have to worry about him groping me anytime soon. 

All this to say, I woke up on Wednesday with a vast majority of the same power I had on Tuesday. I get to feel all the things, but I don't get to be shocked or distraught or imploding in the face of people who are more personally affected by this because of their 
race
religion
loved ones
language
immigration status
sexual orientation
neighborhood
income
insurance
active military duty
or government assistance. 

Wednesday demanded that I get up and face the day: not only my children and my parishioners, but also the power I will continue to hold in this new administration. I will not deny it, putting even more distance between me and Trump supporters. For, if I am called to engage my white privilege for the sake of changing systems that oppress, I must begin in the most uncomfortable place each time. I must begin in discernment of theologies that make me responsible for my whiteness and the power that still - unfortunately - grants me.

In the wise words of Ruby Sales
I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed. And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.
My urge yesterday was to run to those more affected than me, to express my shame and shock so that I could keep hiding out in the corners of my white fragility. But instead, I promise to use my power to do the work required of my sad, but oh-so-privileged ass. 
Friends, Beloved: You will not catch me crying at you, projecting my shock at your open wounds. And you will not hear my empty threats about moving to Canada, because that's a flippant micro-aggression. 
My first fear on Wednesday was that my place is with women set back in time, but the day proved my place is right here in 2016. This moment demands I continue to examine and confess my own whiteness, but with new purpose and urgency. 

My place is in the uncomfortable corners of my own cultural identity where hate and fear divide. My place is in and through the body of Christ, where I will hold space and move for those more weary and vulnerable than I am.  

Today I recognize I've got plenty of whiteness to spare and it's time to use it for good.