Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wading through the swamp

[caption id="attachment_2737" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Heron rookery north of SLC, Utah Heron rookery north of SLC, Utah[/caption]

A reflection on the readings for Lent 3A: John 4:5-42, the woman at the well...

A couple of weeks ago I spoke about my mischievous brothers and in contrast my effort to be the perfect child. Then, I really believed that if I tried hard enough I could be perfect. I mentioned how much therapy I needed as an adult to understand my motives and accept my imperfect self. So it’s no wonder that I am drawn to Brene Brown’s book, “The Gift of Imperfection.” Brene Brown is a researcher and TED recipient and a widely popular author.

Brown’s premise is that everyone feels shame.  She defines shame as feeling bad about who we are. Guilt is feeling bad about something we have done; shame is how we see ourselves. Shame is foundational and universal, every human being feels shame. It turns out that efforts to be perfect are a mask covering up the areas of our lives for which we feel shameful. Perfectionism is an effort to deny the story of our lives and our authentic selves.

Embracing our story and being willing to share that story with some, not all but some key people, is the way we learn to see our shame for what it is and move past it, embracing a sense of self that is bigger, fuller, more authentic, less broken, more loving, and more compassionate. We all have broken pieces of our selves, and sharing the how and where of our brokenness with people who are good listeners and compassionate, helps to heal us and make us more whole.

I was raised by a mother who was physically and psychologically abused as a child. As a result she struggled all her life with depression. Between the time I was in fourth and sixth grade I remember her sleeping a lot, spending most of every day and night in bed. Eventually she got help and rallied forth and became a relatively high functioning parent, but she remained challenged by depression and mental illness her entire life. My mother was beautiful, incredibly intelligent and funny, and sadly, badly broken.

My father is an alcoholic, who now that his disease has progressed as far as it has, makes little effort to be in relationship with his kids. He still manages his properties in Utah but otherwise lives a low key life. When I am in Salt Lake City we have great conversations and enjoy one another’s company. Although we know he loves us, it is clear to my brothers and I that his primary relationship is with alcohol.

This reality of my family life, dysfunctional and broken as it was, filled me with shame. Brene Brown writes that shame is the swampland of the soul. Shame bogs us down. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is that prickly warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough. Shame is the fear of being unlovable.

I pretended for years that my parents and my family were different that they were. But as I became a wife and mother and raised kids of my own I had to face the reality of my childhood family in order that I could become a healthier person, wife, and mother to my own family. It has taken me years, and much hard work, but learning how to own my story has eased my burden of shame. Learning how to own my story has enabled me to love my broken parents, despite my own grief that they were not and are not the kind of parents I wish they were. I still get caught by shame, but I am better equipped to move through it. Now, I rarely counter shame by trying to be perfect, although I still have to work at balancing this.

In a similar way the Samaritan woman in the story from the Gospel of John this morning gives us a portrait of a woman who lives with shame.  In the text she has no name, she’s a nobody. Over the years preachers have described this woman as sinful because of the reference to five husbands and a now one who is not her husband. But the text does not actually use the word sin. Jesus does not address her as sinful. Instead Jesus exposes her true self and invites her to look deeper into who she is so she can own her story.

Her shame comes from the reality that her life did not turn out as she had hoped. As a woman in that day and time she had no choice regarding who her husband was. If one husband died a brother or another male family member of that husband was obligated to take her as his wife, but sometimes no one would do that and the woman was left alone and marginalized, left to starve and die.

This is not a story about a sinful woman, but a woman who has been beaten down by life circumstances, vulnerable, and yet she has survived. Her ability to enter into a debate with Jesus speaks to her strength that has come from having nothing else to lose.

Brene Brown writes that embracing our vulnerability is risky and takes courage. “The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”’

And so this woman and Jesus have a heart to heart conversation. This is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.

This story takes place at Jacob’s well which is an ancient spiritual place in the book of Genesis. That this story takes place at Jacob’s well points us to some deep truths conveyed in the Biblical stories of the human struggle with life and faith. Many of the stories about God and people contain images of water, symbolizing God’s love. Likewise, this water, bubbling up through the rocks in our baptismal font symbolizes God’s love bubbling up in our lives. The image of water conveys God’s desire to quench our thirst and alleviate the dry barren state of our souls. Free flowing water restores the swamp land of our souls.

Perhaps the most important detail of this story is that the woman leaves her water jar at the well when she runs off to tell the townspeople about her encounter with Jesus. She no longer needs to carry that burden, that heavy jar of shame. Now she is the vessel of living water, she is bearer of God’s love. Being heard and seen by Jesus she in now able to authentically carry within her the fullness of her story, knowing that she is loved for being who she is.

In the context of this profound conversation Jesus reveals that God’s love, freely offered to her, is also intended for everyone.

We are loved exactly as we are, in all our brokenness, in and through the secret areas of our own personal shame, in and through the ways we fail to see ourselves as loveable.

I am loved. You are loved.

And, not only are we loved. But we are worthy of this love.

Embrace who you are, as the vessel that carries God’s love into the world.

You are worthy of God’s love.

I am worthy.

We are loved.

 

 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Five: Trips

I've been a blogger since 2006, and for many of these eight years I was a regular at the RevGal Friday Five. I never imagined I would become one of the infrequent players, but I have. Today, however, affords me the time to play. So YAY!

Jan, over at the RevGal's blog offers this Friday Five: For today’s Friday Five, tell about five different trips you have made in your life due to different reasons, modes of travel, or whatever category you choose!

1. Between September of 2009 and May of 2010 I made seven trips from Arizona to Illinois. Five of the trips were round trip driving, two of them included driving one way and flying the other. Each of driving trips took about 36 hours to complete, including stops to rest, eat, and occasionally sleep. I usually drove straight through without spending the night in a hotel. If I were heading east I'd plan my trip to spend several hours sleeping at the rest stop east of Amarillo, Texas, off of highway 40. It was secure, safe, and clean. I also loaded up on book-on-tape and stayed awake and focused listening to some great stories. (But don't ask me what they were, I've forgotten).

2. In August of 2010 I made one more trip across country, driving with my friend, known here as M2 (single mom of twin girls). Some of you may recall that after the long, pregnancy that required bedrest, and then the birth of the girls which required some time in the NICU, the church where M2 worked essentially fired her. They couldn't afford the medical insurance for a family, was the stated cause. It took her two years to find a job - two years of diligent searching and hundreds of positions applied for. Anyway, finally she was called to serve a parish in the west. The twins flew, with their aunt, to her home in San Francisco. M2 and I drove from Chicago to SF with her cat, and some a few possessions while the moving company took everything else. It was a three (or four?)  day drive across country. We went a little out of our way to spend time with my family in Salt Lake City, and at her family cabin in Trukee, NV. It was there that I saw a bald eagle, the only one I've ever seen. I had one full day in SF, which we spent at the wharf and driving from the Golden Gate bridge to CDSP and then back to her brother's house. I flew home the next day. My flight included a leg to LA and then on to Chicago. But a delay in the original flight caused the airlines to rebook me on a later, direct flight to Chicago.

3. When I was nineteen my dad sent me to spend some time with friends of his in the Dominican Republic. My dad was living in Puerto Rico and I was visiting him. It was probably the summer of 1976 or maybe 1977. I flew with the wife of a co-worker to Santo Domingo on a tiny propeller plane. We flew low enough that I could see the waves on the ocean below. Once we were in Santo Domingo she took me to her parents home in a very poor section of town. Chickens and animals wandered freely. Their house was one small portion of long row house. The walls did not go all the way up to the ceiling, so there was a cross ventilation from one residence to the next, and I could hear everything in the other two residences. The bathroom was an outhouse out back. Apparently the parents did not know I was coming and there was a big discussion over where I should stay. (Apparently my dad was a little lax on the plans, or his friend was, or someone was). I was nineteen and did not remember much of my middle school and high school Spanish classes. I remember the mother making me a tiny cup of espresso - my first espresso. I figured it was hot enough to be safe to drink. Eventually they decided I would stay with "grandma" in her government owned apartment. It was a concrete structure and she was on an upper floor - a walk up some fifteen flights, I think, because I remember being able to see the entire city below. Every night the dictatorship government shut off power and grandma and I would play dominoes by candle light and drink "El Presidente" beer. The family took me to see Christopher Columbus' home and to the beach. It was a bizarre trip, but memorable.

4. When our kids were young we spent several summers (before ordination) at a cottage in northwestern Michigan. It was beautiful, relaxing, and fun. We'd load up the car with the dog and the kids and make the seven hour drive. We spent a lot of time hiking the dunes and roasting marshmallows under the stars.

5. One summer my kids and I drove from Chicago to Salt Lake and spent two weeks with my family there. It was a fun trip.

For a number of years my kids and I made other road trips, to North or South Carolina, to visit a family friend. I have fond memories of those trips. For me, there is something lovely and relaxing about a long drive. I enjoy the opportunity to remember just how vast this country is, and how beautiful it is too.

 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Piercing the darkness

A young woman brings her fiancé home to meet her parents. After dinner the parents ask the couple questions about their plans for the future.

Knowing  that their daughter intends to work with the poor and the marginalized and will never make much money, the parents ask the couple what their plans are.

"I’m a Biblical scholar," the fiance replies.

"A Biblical scholar.  Hmmm," the father says. "Admirable. Now I wonder how you two plan to afford a house to live in.

"I will study," the young man replies, "and God will provide for us."

"And how will you afford furniture and food and clothing?" asks the father.

“I will be serving the poor, we will not need much to live on, God will provide.” said the daughter.

"And, I will concentrate on my studies," the young man replies, "and God will provide for us."

The conversation proceeds like this and each time the parents question them, the young ideal couple responds that “God will provide.”

After the couple leaves, the parents ponder over the seeming naiveté of the young couple.

Finally the father surmises, "They will have no income and no plans for their security, but apparently they think we are God.”

 

Today we heard the first of what will be four fabulous stories in the Gospel of John which appear in year A in the season of Lent. Each of these four stories will provide us with insight into just “how God provides,” by considering the nature of God’s relationship with creation. We will learn something about God’s intent to remain in relationship with human beings; regardless of how many times people break God’s heart.

Like other stories in the Bible these will require us to hear the irony within them and to approach them with a sense of humor and awe. Jesus’ tone in these readings is ironic and witty. Sometimes people interpret Jesus’ wit as judgment, and hear only a very narrow perspective, missing how profound the text really is. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the blind man who Jesus heals, and the death and resurrection of Lazarus will challenge us to deepen our awareness of how we are living in relationship with God, with others, and even with ourselves as we journey through Lent.

The readings this morning began with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. God calls them and sends them forth, into a new land. They go, having no idea how they will survive, but assured that God will provide and they will be blessed. Leaving family behind they travel to a foreign land. The promise of children and land eludes them for a very long time. They grow old and are certain that nothing will come of the blessing God has promised. Then, when they least expect it, their life turns around. Sarah gives birth to Isaac who marries Rebekah who gives birth to Jacob and Esau. Jacob marries Rachel who gives birth to Joseph, and generations later, David is born. Jesus, a descendent of this family, is born into a tradition of people who wrestle with God, journey and struggle with their faith, but also grow in their faith and trust of God.

Abraham, Sarah, and Nicodemus model for us, each in their imperfect way, what it means to be faithful.  The reading from the Gospel of John is not about literal birth, although the image of birth conveys the messy and painful challenges of journeying through dark nights of the soul. Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about discipleship and following where God leads, trusting that God helps each person.

Following God’s call involves risk and venturing into the unknown, trusting that God will provide. But this trust, this faith, is not naïve. It requires our willing and active participation. The texts today hold in tension what it means to follow God, through the darkness of the womb and be birthed, literally and figuratively, into a life that God is calling us to live. The texts hold in balance our work and God’s blessing. The text advises us to not be fooled into thinking that we are in charge of everything and that it is only by our hard work that we will acquire success.

The irony of the text pushes us to see that success and blessing may not be what we think they are. Success and blessing from God are less about material objects, and more about feeling a sense of peace and contentment with life as it is. This is very different from seeking fulfillment from the things we attain. Although financial success is a wonderful achievement and helps us live more comfortably, there is more to God’s blessing.  God’s blessing is found in the beauty of the earth and our relationships with one another. God also blesses us with the ability to grow, change, be transformed, to participate in and partner with God in creation, to literally and figuratively birth new life into the world.

The real beauty of these stories in Genesis and John are their portrait of life, filled as it is with many dark moments. Life is filled with despair and grief so deep that sometimes we are certain we cannot make it through the night. I have had long dark nights of the soul. Awakened by grief or fear in the middle of the night I am forced from my bed. A cup of tea and a book are little comfort. Like Nicodemus I cry out, “How can this be?”

Who has not cried these words, “How can this be?”

And yet, it just is, because grief and darkness are a natural part of life.

I hate that fact, that life brings with it despair and darkness. I hate being reduced to a cry in the darkness and a prayer that God will fill me with enough peace that I can sleep.

I wish that God would prevent suffering. At the very least I wish God would take away fear and worry and grief, but God does not do that. Instead, God journeys with me until I am through the darkness and some kind of new life has been born. Sometimes it is only with the frailest sense of trust that I find strength and comfort. In the deepest moments of despair, I hang onto the potential for hope. I hope for hope. On the other side of these dark nights, when I am in the light again, I realize just how loved I am. God did not abandon me. God’s love provided me with the stamina to persevere, the courage to make the journey through the darkness into the light. Laboring through grief, fear, and suffering is much like giving birth.

And, there are some forms of grief and despair that never leave us.  In time we may become less raw and the intensity of the feelings less piercing, but some life events will always be a tragedy. How can this be, remains our cry.

There are other occasions, however, when we can come to see darkness as Mary Oliver wrote in this poem, “Someone I once loved gave me a box full of darkness, this too has become a gift.”

God’s love is a gift that provides us with hope and the courage to journey through the darkest night into the light of God’s grace.

How can this be?

And yet, like Abraham and Sarah, and even eventually, perhaps, Nicodemus, a life of faith assures us that it is so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Changing Habits: our Lenten practice

A couple of days ago, on Ash Wednesday, we offered two services designed just for children. The services were informal and interactive. The intent was to teach the children about Ash Wednesday. Why do we impose ashes on our foreheads and why do we practice the season of Lent? The 11am service was offered for our four year olds in Chapel Day preschool and the 4:30 service was offered for children of all ages and open to the entire community. We sat on the floor and had a lively discussion about hurt feelings. We talked about the need, sometimes, to say we’re sorry. Anna, the preschool teacher, reminded the children that not only have they have learned to say they are sorry but they have learned to show others that they are sorry. The children are learning that our actions speak louder than words. I asked the kids what they do to show someone they are sorry. The kids said things like, “I hug mommy when I’m sorry.” Or,” I kiss mommy when I’m sorry.” Or,  “I make a gift and give it to the person,” or, “ I make a cupcake and give it to them.”  We then looked at and touched the dried palm fronds from last year and then looked at and touched the crumbly ashes from burned palms. Finally we looked at the finely sifted ashes and dipped our fingers into them, making the sign of the cross on our foreheads as a mark to remind ourselves that Lent has begun.

Lent is a season to focus, intentionally, on the broken places of our lives and work to repair them, to say we’re sorry, to change our behavior, to turn and return to a right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. Forty days is long enough for this intentional focus on our behavior to establish some long lasting changes in what we do habitually.

Changing habits is a process. Charles Durhigg wrote about this process in his book, “Habits,” saying this: “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits…..At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.”

The key to changing habits, Charles Durhigg states, is in finding the trigger, particularly the trigger that elicits pleasure in that habit and changing the trigger. Our kids, by saying sorry and putting sorry into action, are learning that reconciliation feels good. That “good” feeling that comes from reconciliation can become the motivation to navigate the profoundly intense and scary terrain of hurt feelings and misunderstanding. Feeling the pleasure of taking time to pray, in silence or with words, can instill in us a new behavior, a motivation to take time every day to be with God. Perhaps your prayer time will come as you take a walk, or read, or listen to music, or practice yoga, or just sit in silence. Lent invites us to create new habits, new patterns of behavior, and practice them through the season until they become a part of who we are.

Last week I spoke about the impact of a phenomenon called Trophic Cascade. Trophic cascades are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. Trophic cascades occur in nature when predators limit the density and/or behavior of their prey and thereby enhance survival of the next lower trophic level.[i] I cited the example of wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and how the wolves impacted the ecosystem on every level.  I suggested that trophic cascades can also happen in the spiritual realm as well.

I also cited a concept from sailing: “a one degree of change in direction can completely alter where one ultimately lands.”

We are all on a lifelong journey. Each one of us influences the lives of others. Altering one small thing in our lives can have a global impact. Imagine what is possible if we engage in the Lenten practices practices listed in the Book of Common Prayer in our Ash Wednesday service:  prayer, self-examination, repentance, study, and fasting?

As I have said, prayer can be as simple as taking time to be quiet with God, using words or not. Self –examination is an intentionally deep look at how we are living our lives and the areas where we can make improvements. Repentance means to turn and return to God, eliminating those behaviors, those habits, that keep us, and distract us, from God. Fasting can be a fast from food or drink, as a daily reminder of the habits that distract us from God. Or fasting can be an invitation to slow down and pray, slow down and become more mindful of our habits and behaviors. Fasting might also mean fasting from being staid, too slow, and therefore taking on an activity for Lent that might build new habits, new behaviors that serve to deepen our relationship with God, others, and even ourselves.

Our reading today from Genesis is part of the creation story. It contains elements that guide our Lenten practices. The first humans have eaten the apple. This bite symbolizes having their eyes opened because they have eaten the fruit of knowledge. Having their eyes opened in this way is not about physical ability. This seeing involved perception and understanding that covers a range of experiences. This seeing means humans will understand the difference between good and bad.

The creation story tells us why God created us and what our purpose is.  God created humans to tend to and protect the garden[ii]. We are created to tend to and protect all of God’s creation.  This is our mission. Paul makes reference to our mission in his letter to the Romans; our mission is to tend to creation by ensuring that all people are able to live in right relationship with one another and with God.[iii] This means all people are to have the resources to have their basic needs met – food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and a job that provides a living wage. The reading from Matthew continues this idea and builds on it. [iv]We learn that our mission, as servants of God, called to tend to and protect all of creation, is a mission of love. Love is a verb, love in action is how we live into the very thing that God created us to do, to tend and protect creation by loving one another as God loves us. Love is justice. Love is, as the children said, using words and action to reconcile the broken places in our lives.

Tending to and protecting God’s creation may only bring a one degree of change in our lives, but the potential is for a spiritual trophic cascade of compassion, hope and love. May this be a holy Lent for each of us.

 







[i] http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/trophic-cascades-across-diverse-plant-ecosystems-80060347




[ii] Feasting on the Word: Year A Lent through Eastertide




[iii] ibid




[iv] ibid


Saturday, March 01, 2014

One Degree, a spiritual trophic cascade

In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, having been absent from the park for seventy years. In the 1800’s Yellowstone park rangers took it upon themselves to eradicate predatory animals like wolves, bears, and coyotes in order to sustain the viability of livestock animals for food. A hundred years later people began to have an awareness of how one species of life can impact an entire ecosystem. This led to fourteen wolves being reintroduced to the park in 1995 and another 25 within the next year.  What has transpired since these wolves were reintroduced is a phenomenon known as “trophic cascade.”

Trophic cascades are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. Trophic cascades occur when predators limit the density and/or behavior of their prey and thereby enhance survival of the next lower trophic level.[i] In the case of Yellowstone, the wolves impacted the ecosystem on every level.

As soon as wolves arrived there was a radical change in the behavior of deer. The deer began avoiding certain parts of the park. They left valleys and gorges and moved to higher elevations. When the deer moved, the height of trees increased. Other trees returned like aspen and willows. With the return of trees, more birds returned, and beavers returned.  Beavers are ecosystem engineers because they create habitats for other animals like ducks and fish. The wolves killed coyotes, which in turn brought back rabbits and mice. The return of rabbits and mice enabled grasses to grow because their dens and holes provide a natural aeration that supports the growth of wild grass. The return of rabbits and mice and other small animals also brought back hawks and eagles. Bears increased too because there were more bushes and trees and therefore more berries. The presence of wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. With increased tress and grasses there was less erosion of soil, channels narrowed, more pools formed. The regenerating forests stabilized the banks, therefore they collapsed less often and the rivers became more fixed in their course. Less soil erosion restored the water ways. Some say it is amazing how, in a mere nineteen years a few wolves changed the ecosystem of Yellowstone.[ii]

We’ve come to the last Sunday after the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday.  A Gospel reading on the transfiguration of Jesus appears in Mark, Luke, or Matthew, which means the transfiguration is a powerful story from the ancient world. This year we also have the reading from Exodus on the transfiguration of Moses as he encounters God on the mountain top.

Moses ascends to the mountain top because God has called him there. On the mountain Moses is given the Ten Commandments. It’s important to remember that the commandments, and the laws that come from them, are less about legal requirements and more about relationship.  They are guidelines on how to be in relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. Moses was called to the mountain, not so he could be changed, but so that he could become an agent of change for the Hebrew people. Moses teaches the people how to live in relationship with God, with other people, and even with one’s self.

In a similar way God calls Jesus to the mountain top. Jesus takes with him three disciples. While on the mountain Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is transfigured. Again, the transfiguration of Jesus was not for Jesus, but for the disciples. The disciples now know that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law of Moses, and that in and through Jesus they will come to know how to live in right relationship with God, with others, and with themselves.

When Moses encountered God, God was hidden in a cloud. When Jesus is transfigured God is visible for all to see. God manifests God’s self in human flesh. This means that we can come to know God in and through our relationships with other people.

Today we are here, in part, to celebrate our young people as they grow in their faith. The Rite 13 ceremony is a special part of Christian Formation in this congregation, marking not only the time when our kids become teenagers, but also a reminder of the role we play in their lives. These young people are being formed in their relationship with God, in their relationship with other people their age, in their relationship with adult leaders who are not their parents, and in their relationship with each of us. Their formation is intentionally designed to help them navigate the challenges and choices before them as a Christian. They are learning what it means to be a person of faith. Each of us participates in their formation, some in small ways, and others in greater measure. How we live and act and treat others models for them how to reveal God’s presence in the world.

Our youth are learning how to navigate the complexities of life. Our children are watching us and learning from us. What are we teaching them? This reminds me of an old sailing proverb that says, a one degree of change in direction can completely alter where one ultimately lands.

We are all on a lifelong journey. Each one of us influences the lives of others. If altering the course of sailing by one degree can completely change the destination and where one lands, and if a pack of wolves can change the entire ecosystem of a national park, imagine the impact any one of us might have on the world around us. Just look at was has happened in one year with the SCHOOL project in Liberia. No doubt this school will be a trophic cascade – not just for the people of Liberia but even for us - as we see the impact of this one small endeavor.

If altering one small thing in our lives can have this degree of an impact on a country across the planet, just imagine what other transformation is possible when we come down off the mountain top and let our faces shine with the love of God.

 

 

 







[i] http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/trophic-cascades-across-diverse-plant-ecosystems-80060347




[ii] http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=91e_1392504581


I will with God's help....uncomplicating the complicated

I was baptized when I was nine years old. I have vivid memories of the baptism itself, of being terrified, as I was fully immersed three ti...