Saturday, December 19, 2015

At the risk of being broken...

In June 1941 the United States shut down all visa applications for anyone entering the US who had close relatives in Germany. It was during this same time that Otto Frank was applying for visas for his family to come to the US. Otto Frank was the father of the Anne Frank, whose well read diaries depict the atrocities of Auschwitz and the holocaust. Think of how very different her story might have been if the US had granted her and her family visas.

Clara Williams was born in 1885. In 1928 she enrolled at New Mexico State University, taking only summer courses in order to teach black kids in the public school system during the school year. Because she was a black woman her professors at New Mexico State University would not allow her in the classroom, so she took notes from the hallway. She graduated nine years later with a Bachelor’s Degree in English at the age of 51.

This fall a couple of women started an online campaign called “Together Rising” to raise funds for Syrian refugees. Much to their surprise they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Its taken them months to figure out how to use the money, contacting refugee organizations around the world for assistance. What they learned is that women refugees want strollers and warm clothes for their families. And so that is what they are doing, sending strollers and warm clothes to refugees.

Mary, whose story we hear in the Gospel this morning, like Clara, Anne, and refugee women around the world, faced many challenges in life. Mary was a refugee, giving birth to Jesus in a town not her own, without the comfort of home and family, then on the run to Egypt to escape death from the angry and jealous Herod.

We live in a broken world. It has always been broken. Yet, for people of faith, even in the brokenness, God’s love, God’s hope for God’s creation manages to squeak through. For Christians, our story begins with Mary.

One of the primary images of Mary portrayed by the Christian tradition is that of a poor, submissive, passive girl. However, if one listens to the story in Luke one hears something quite different. Mary is brave and confidently accepts the role of birthing God into the world, despite a very uncertain future in doing so. She stays with her son, God in the flesh, to the very end, despite the dangers of being at the foot of the cross where she too could have been crucified. This Mary is hardly weak, submissive, or passive.

The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary - Theotokos - God Bearer. 

Images of Black Madonna’s appeared between the 12th and 15th centuries. Some Black Madonnas were created using dark pigment or stone, others turned black with age and patina. Some think that the Black Madonnas have a historical link to pagan goddesses of the earth - like the rich black soil of the earth, the black Madonna depicts Mary as the one who birthed God into the world.

Unlike Mary, most of us do not have profound experiences of God moving us into action in the world. It’s not that God isn’t trying to move us, its more likely that we are just too obtuse, too human, to recognize God’s way of moving in us. I’m willing to wager than no one in this room has ever had an angel wake them up at night and tell them that God has a message for them. Still, terrifying as that would be, at least it would be clear what God wanted. 

As individuals and as a Christian community most of us have not had to face the same kinds of life threatening challenges that Anne Frank, Clara Williams, refugee women, or Mary, the mother of God, faced. But in other ways it is challenging to be a church in the world today.

One part of the challenge, of course, is understanding how to be attentive in order that God can speak to us and through us. 

Often, when we are able to hear God speak it is through either the broken places in our lives or through our passions. Recently we’ve come to recognize that we are a church that feeds people. It’s something we’ve done for a long time, but recognizing that feeding people is one of our passions helps to focus us. How do we feed people in mind, body, and spirit? Take for example our help to build a school in Liberia, the creation of an exterior plaza that is a welcome place of respite for humans and animals alike, Blessings in a Backpack feeding hungry school kids, our food pantry that feeds nearly 30 families a month, the increased accessibility for walkers and wheelchairs in the church, the Holiday Market supporting local artists, the organ refurbishment and the joy that comes from appreciating fine music, and our ongoing initiatives to increase our awareness of racism and the other biases that exist within us. These are just a few of the ways that we strive to feed people in mind, body, and spirit. These are some of the ways that our soul sings out in response to God, and even though our response does not come as a result of the threat and risk like others have faced, it comes nonetheless, with the confidence that we can be part of God’s healing presence in a world of pain and suffering. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015


Nearly thirty years ago, when Dan and I were new to church, if we skipped church for a couple of Sundays in a row we’d get a phone call from Masie. Those phone calls made me feel a little guilty, but that was my problem. Masie just called to see how we were and tell us he had missed us. It was a sweet gesture, one I came to appreciate.

Masie was a retired eye doctor, a Japanese American.  When he was a young man the US government uprooted Masie and his family and sent them to a Japanese relocation camp in Arkansas.  After the war he ended up in Illinois. He was a lifelong faithful Episcopalian. Divorced and remarried, he and his second wife were, for many years, denied communion in the Episcopal Church. Masie faced many challenges in his life, and shared these stories with some sadness. Nonetheless he chose to be gentle, welcoming, kind, and faithful. He was an active, vital member of that small church in Chicago until the day of his death.

Ten years later that church sponsored me when I was ordained a priest. I’ve now been a priest for sixteen years. Serving as a priest has motivated me to become a healthier, more aware, wise person. It has also brought with it profound challenges of the kind that all clergy face in this day and age - helping people know God’s love in their lives, a love that is frequently expressed through the love and kindness of others. 

Likewise Maryjane and Scott have taken steps in their lives to follow God’s call into ordained ministry. Maryjane is coming to the end of her time as a Curate. Eventually she will leave us and settle into parish ministry as an interim rector.

The last two and half years have passed quickly and now Scott is here for his first day as a transitional deacon. In June, God willing, he will be ordained a priest. By then he will be finished with seminary and ready to embark on his call to be a parish priest.

Both Maryjane and Scott have made sacrifices to follow God’s call. They too will find that life as a priest is filled with grace and blessing as well as challenges that will push and pull at the very fiber of their beings, transforming them in ways they cannot possibly predict. As John the Baptist points out, following God’s call and producing fruit is risky and challenging, and yet it is grounded in love - the capacity to know God’s love in their lives and share that love with others. 

Carm Yero, one of our newer parishioners and a member of the Vestry and Altar Guild, is in the process of discerning if she has a call to the priesthood. Her congregational discernment committee has been meeting for a few months, asking her challenging questions and helping her listen to God’s Spirit. In time the committee members will need to make an assessment of what they have heard and if they hear a call, to recommend her to the Bishop. The discernment process is risky, too; self examination is important and so one’s life becomes an open book. This leaves one feeling vulnerable and doing a lot of soul searching. Its good work, challenging work, and yes, it too is primarily about love - how is God’s love expressing itself in and through Carm’s life and how is she being called to share that love?

Many of you here today have also felt called to serve the church. Some of you serve as Masie did, calling parishioners or sending out greeting cards, expressing love and concern. Some of you take the time to pick up members of the parish and drive them to church. Others have felt called to serve as leaders or members of one of our Commissions, Committees, or Ministry Teams. Some of you serve as a Vestry member or sing in the choir or serve as an acolyte, Lector, lay Eucharistic minister, or usher. Some of you serve by doing ministry in the world around us, outreach work into the community. Each of you are responding, knowingly or not, to the call of the Spirit and the gifts bestowed upon you. Each one of us, in our own way, is living out our baptismal covenant promises, following God’s call, striving to love as God loves.

John the Baptist extends this challenge to his followers - embrace your call from God live a life of faith, and produce good fruit. Granted, John is a bit radical in his exhortation calling his followers a brood of vipers. Mind you, I’d never encourage this as a motivational tool. But John’s followers don’t seem to mind being called “children of snakes” because the next thing they ask is, “What can we do?” John responds - love God, love neighbor, love self.

Each of you have a role in shaping Maryjane, Scott, and Carm as they strive to live their call. As a community of faith you care for one another, helping each other to grow and mature as Christians. In these ways God’s love is revealed in and through you.

It may be a slight exaggeration, but it is possible that Dan and I might have slipped away from church if Masie hadn’t made the effort to reach out to us. I am grateful for Masie and the other people who have taught me along the way and helped to shape me as a person of faith. Each of them have been a reflection of God’s love in my life.

On this third Sunday of Advent John the Baptist calls his followers to step out in faith, to live as God calls them to live. No doubt the challenge was risky for John’s followers. Perhaps, in this fast paced world where cultures and ethnicities and religions live side by side, or worse, clash with extreme acts of violence, the risk feels greater? Perhaps it is riskier today to love as God loves? But through the centuries, from John the Baptist to today, God’s call to love has not changed, risky or not. If anything its become even more important. So, no more brood of vipers, children of snakes. Let’s change the world, creating a brood of lovers, children of God. 

(a reflection on Luke 3:7-18 for Advent 3C)

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Guns and Jesus

In 1968 my fifth grade class went camping for a couple of days at the end of the school year to mark the transition from elementary school to  middle school. It was on this camping trip that I learned to shoot a rifle. They taught me how to load it, aim and shoot it, and clean it.

In the 1980’s my dad worked in Puerto Rico but frequently travelled to Salt Lake City, sometimes with a lay-over in Chicago, where I lived. On one of these visits he had a duffel bag that he put through the checked baggage at the airport so it could go on to Salt Lake City while he stayed with me for a few days. The duffle bag contained some rifles and guns, used mostly for hunting, that he was transporting back to Utah. A friend of his was going to pick it up at baggage claim. I was shocked, but apparently it was no big deal, then. But, can you imagine anyone doing that today?

Many years ago when Dan’s father died Dan inherited his father’s World War II era gun. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a gun in the house when we had young children, so we kept it locked away, until we sold it some years later.

When I was a teenager my mother would often say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” 

All of this has lead me to have a complicated relationship with guns. They kind of scare me and I don’t really like them, but people I love own them and use them. My son, who is a Junior in college studying internet security, confidently maintains that no law that restricts guns ownership will solve the problem of gun violence because illegal guns can be acquired in minutes any where in any town.

Will increased gun restrictions help prevent mass shootings? I don't know, but, when Chicago had a law making automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal gun violence in the city dropped. 

Still, I think the situation today is far more complicated than just employing new laws and restrictions, though they might help. The problem lies in the very fiber of our society - a failure to respect the life of the living, an inability to employ reasonable conflict resolution, and choosing to solve disputes or enforce ideology or enact racism -  by killing other people. 

The world has always been a violent place, particularly when it comes to religion or race or ethnicity. Our Bible is full of stories of one nation killing another. The Middle Ages brought the Inquisition, with Christians slaughtering Jews and Muslims, all in the name of God. There’s the holocaust and the annihilation of Jews in Germany and Poland. Even today genocide is present in many countries around the world creating a refugee crisis with some 60 million displaced persons. And then there is terrorism, shootings and bombings in the name of God.

Yes, the world has always been a violent place. But I just can’t wrap my head around this recent surge in violence. I find myself waking up in the middle of the night wondering how a mother can, in one minute breast feed her six month old daughter and then, a few minutes later kill fourteen people, injure many more, all the while knowing that she would end up dead, too, and leave that baby an orphan. What in the name of God is happening? What, in the name of God, are we supposed to do?

Malachi lived in similar time of chaos. He was a prophet sent by God to guide the people back to God. As Christians we hear Malachi’s words as pointing toward the coming of the Messiah, to Jesus. 

Malachi teaches us that God’s way is restorative, God’s judgment is about restoration - people are made in God’s image, which therefore ought to shape what one does, how one does it, and why. This is a message I truly believe - that God is love and that every human being has the capacity to reveal the image of God.

And yet, even with the word and example of Malachi and John the Baptist and others who came before and after, it’s still complicated.

Admittedly I don’t always know how to navigate the challenges of the world today, not when the very fabric that makes us civilized human beings - the ability to respect the dignity of every human being - has been torn apart and discarded in the name of God, in the name of profit, in the face of individual rights, or any of the other ways people de-humanize other people.

It’s complicated 
and overwhelming 
and I feel numb 
and exhausted 
from the onslaught of violence
 and the media overload. 

What I really want to do is make Christmas cookies and watch old movies and pretend that 
none of this is going on. 

And, I will do some of that. 

But I also have to do more. 

I can’t just pretend like there isn’t critical stuff going on in the world around me.

I have to do the intense interior work of figuring out how to follow Malachi and John the Baptist and make way for Jesus to be born anew inside of me. 

I’m not sure how do that this year, except it begins with prayer. 

And, I think it requires a community of people willing to join together in prayer and action, seeking ways to reveal Christ in the world. 

And I know it includes different responses to conflict and the things that make us different 
from one another - race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. 

It has something to do with love, loving as God loves,and respecting 
the dignity of every human being.

It has to do with building up relationships and building up community and that takes work, intentional work, prayer, and time and a willingness to get to know one’s neighbor: those who live in the house next door, those in the pews around us, those we encounter in the world, the refugee, the stranger.

It’s up to us, people of faith, to figure out how we can best be  the hands and heart of Christ  in this time and place, tending to a broken world  and the shattered lives within it. 

(A reflection on the readings for Advent 2C: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Five: Leftovers

Deb, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five:

... being thankful is a spiritual discipline. So I invite you to list five things, people, events or pets that you are truly thankful for this year.

BONUS: As spiritual careGIVERS we often forget to plan time to care for ourselves and we end up getting the dregs of our energies and self-care. What are you doing to make sure you aren’t getting the LEFTOVERS of your schedule for self care?

1. On Nov. 5, 2002 we adopted Ruby (sorry for the scary dog eye glare...) she was a great dog. Playful, always happy, very attune to my feelings, a joy and a delight.  She died a few weeks ago, suddenly, at the age of 13, leaving me bereft. I am so grateful that she found us and for the gift she was in our lives. 

2. Then we were found by this pup:

We named her Delilah (Lila). She is sweet pup - playful, yet calm. She's been a source of healing and love in our family. And, oddly enough I realized that we adopted her on Nov. 5, 2015 - thirteen years to the day that we got Ruby. Perhaps there is a "thin" place in that realm of after life where dogs go...?

3. Family: This year, my daughter, Jessica, and son in law, Keith were able to come up on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. As a result Jess and I were able to do a lot the Thanksgiving meal prep together, which was really fun. Keith and our son Peter did some bonding over computer stuff, and then helped Dan hang lights outside and bring up Christmas decorations. 

4. Traditions: We have created a family tradition of cutting down a live Christmas tree on Thanksgiving morning. Then, because Jess and Keith will drive home today we decorated it last night. (note the cat under the tree, her favorite spot)...

5. More traditions: We have had a family tradition of going to a movie on the day after Thanksgiving since Jess was 2 years old (25 years ago). That first year we saw "Little Mermaid." Every year since we've gone to a movie. Today we are going to see "Mockingjay part 2." 

I grew up in a family that was disconnected from one another and our extended family members, by virtue of distance and also our family emotional system - lots of cut-offs. As a result much of my life has been focused on creating traditions and building family and trying to sustain relationships. I am Thankful for the relationships I do have, for the family I have, and for our little traditions that build memories, anchor us in a history, and mark the passage of time. 

6. Bonus: taking care of myself is crucial. Generally I do this by exercising, eating well, practicing yoga and meditation, and getting regular chiropractic adjustments and massages. I carry a lot of stress in my body which has resulted in digestive issues and tight muscles. The self care I practice on a daily basis helps me manage both the stress and how it manifests physically and psychologically. 

On another note: we don't have many leftovers this year so we may have to order Chinese take-out tonight... :-) 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday Five: Guilty Pleasures

Marie, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five meme, following the end of her favorite television show.

For today’s Friday Five, tell us about your guilty pleasures.
TV Show: I always end up with a love/hate response to television shows, even ones I have watched for years. I just hate the way the writers will build a completely ridiculous story line, especially when most of the time the story line is engaging. I watch Scandal, Good Wife, Madam Secretary, and Grey's Anatomy. I also really LOVE Call the Midwife, when it runs in the spring. 
Food: I'm not really big on any particular food. But I always need to have a good cup of coffee in the morning. When I developed acid reflux last year I had to change the kind of coffee I drink, no more high acid Mexican coffee, now I have to drink coffee grown in the Pacific or Indonesia (Sumatra, for example). Thankfully Sumatra is a really tasty roast.
Reading Material: I am thick into the "Outlander" series....I've tried to read another book in between my obsession with the series but I just can't. I am not sure why the story line is so compelling, it is kind of silly, but I am obsessed. 
Music: I use to listen to a lot of music, lately I don't. I do listen to podcasts, especially On Being.
Wildcard guilty pleasure: Yoga isn't really a guilty pleasure, but it is something I do on a regular basis that leaves me feeling so much better. I suppose something a little more decadent would be a really find glass of red wine or maybe some excellent Scottish Whiskey served "neat." 

Friday, November 06, 2015

Friday Five: Random!!

3dogmom over at the RevGals blog offers this Friday Five. I haven't played in a long while...
What is your “gotta go!” breakfast that you can grab and take with you in the morning when you’re in a rush? I don't usually grab a breakfast to go, I usually have a bowl of yogurt with a fresh banana and some granola or a bowl of steel oats for breakfast. But, if I really have to run I take a peanut butter sandwich on Ezekiel sprouted grain bread. There was a time when I drove to work and then I usually stopped off for a Starbucks latte and a scone. But that was also the season in my life when I gained 22 pounds. :-) 

When was the last time you had a fun evening out, and what did you do? I haven't been out for fun in awhile. However, on a trip to Baltimore for refugee training we spent an evening on the top floor of LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services). It was a gorgeous night and from that floor we had a panoramic view of all of Baltimore, with an outdoor deck to enjoy the evening. I didn't know anyone there but I met some new colleagues and had a lovely night. 

Favorite poet or poem? Mary Oliver is my favorite poet and I love almost all of her poems. I also really like Billy Collins. Once I was lucky enough to go to a book signing event at a local university where I heard Billy Collins read his poems and he signed my book. Now, when I read his poems I can "hear" his voice, his cadence, his humor, in the words on the page. 

Who makes you laugh? My dogs. Crack me up. Last night we went to a shelter looking for a new dog. And one little puppy clearly chose us, it was hilarious. First we spent time with her sister, who I thought was the dog for us. She was a timid little thing, very docile, having been a stray. But she warmed up a little and we thought she was the dog for us. Then the shelter brought out her sister, who was thought to be even more docile. But this puppy came out walking and climbed right into my husbands lap and then went up to our other dog and sniffed her face and licked her. And that was that. She's now home with us. We've named her Delilah (or Lila, for short). 

Where do you like to go for some “time apart,” in the way that Jesus took time apart? I take long walks outside, but usually with my dogs. Walking is cathartic for me and prayerful. I also go to yoga, often walking to class. I am blessed to live in a town where walking most anyplace I want to go is very feasible and enjoyable. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Grief of our Corporate Souls

Can you help? 

This was the somewhat desperate question asked of me by the refugee resettlement agency. A family of six was scheduled to arrive within 24 hours and the house they were going to live in had not received clearance by the city inspectors. The family, a mother with four kids and a grandmother, were refugees from Rwanda who had fled to Cameroon. After years in a refugee camp they had been transported to the Sudan and were in route from the Sudan to Paris and then to Chicago, they’d be here the next day, after a grueling 36 hours of travel. The church and I, having participated in refugee resettlement for a couple of years, decided that we could house this family for a few days. It was summer, no Sunday School, and the building was mostly unused during the day. We set up six beds in one long room. Next door was a living room like space with a television. Downstairs was a fully stocked kitchen and bathrooms with showers. In short order we had everything ready, including food in the refrigerator. The family arrived, along with staff from the refugee agency, about 4pm on a warm sunny afternoon. After the trauma and the challenges of travel, the family was nearly catatonic. Over the next week the church was filled with the sounds of a family coming back to life - kids playing outside in the playground, food being prepared in the kitchen, and faces that began to smile with eyes that shone from rest and hope. By the end of the week the agency had the house ready and the family moved on, but the members of that church, who had opened their doors, were forever changed. 

“Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:34-35).

Who is the stranger? 

Did you know that there are about 60 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, and the number is growing daily. 

Forcibly Displaced people fall into several categories:

IDP’s: Internally Displaced Persons: about 40 million people have been forcibly uprooted and displaced within their own country due to violence and conflict. They remain in their country but not in their homes. They are not protected by the government and have no access to resources. 

Asylum Seekers: In 2014 1.66 million people submitted applications for asylum. A potentially even larger number of people are waiting to make it through the legal system to apply. Asylum seekers are at a distinct disadvantage in that they have zero resources available to them. A number of agencies focus solely on helping asylum seekers, such as Freedom House in Detroit. The criteria that grants one asylum are: cannot return to home country because of a real risk of being killed due to one’s race, religion, ethnicity, politics, or because one is a member of a particular group such as the LGBTQ community. And, I read recently that there are women in South America who fall into the “particular group” category because they are in marriages they can’t get out of. 

Refugee: a refugee is someone who has been forced out their home and country because of a real risk of death and violence. There are about 20 million refugees in camps around the world today. Most refugees today are fleeing Syria, followed by those fleeing Afghanistan as well as Africa, South and Central America, and other countries in the world that are experiencing conflict. Refugee resettlement is a long, arduous process. A number of international agencies, often affiliated with the United Nations, work with the governments that have created refugee camps with the intent of resettling as many people as possible. Each person considered for resettlement undergoes intense back ground checks, health and psychological evaluations. Refugee status can take years to acquire and even longer to receive the needed approval to be resettled in another country. 

Migrants - a term used frequently, all individuals who cross a border into another county is a migrant. However migrant differs from IDP’s, asylum seekers, and refugees in that a migrant can still seek the protection of its home government.

Here in Southeast Michigan the largest resettlement agency is LSSM - Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. They have partner affiliates with other agencies, such as EMM - the Episcopal Migration Ministries. It is anticipated that we will receive nearly 1000 refugees, beginning in about 18 months, or as soon as President Obama gives the clearance for resettlement to begin. 

Refugees are resettled first in countries and cities where they already have family members. If there are no family members with whom to be reunited, refugees are resettled in regions where there are other people with whom they can form community. 

Every effort is made to ensure that refugees are resettled into community, for it is with community that people are able to rebuild their lives and move from despair to hope. 

How can you help? As refugees begin to arrive in SE Michigan I will receive requests from LSSM for assistance. This will be a request for immediate action: a team of youth or adults to greet a refugee family at the airport, a team of people who can set up a house or apartment including making beds and organizing a kitchen, a team of people who can acquire new or gently used clothing or household items, a team of people who will go to the grocery store a stock the kitchen with culturally appropriate food for the family. Some churches may choose to take on a larger, more expensive portion of resettlement, such as sponsoring a family by paying for the expenses to migrate including Visas, airfare, the items in their new home, and so forth. 

And, be sure to stop by the LSSM booth in the vender hall and pick up materials on refugee resettlement. 

Thank you, Bishop Gibbs, for your support in enabling me to attend the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services conference earlier this month, and for encouraging our participation in refugee resettlement. 

The Diocese of Michigan has a long history with  refugee resettlement, and now we will have that opportunity again.

Thank you also to Christ Episcopal Church, Dearborn, and our Vestry, who also supported this endeavor and the trip to Baltimore to attend the LIRS conference earlier this month. 

We are informed and formed not only from Jesus’ words in the Gospel, to help the stranger, but also from Deuteronomy we are reminded that we are to help the stranger for we too were once strangers in a strange land. If we reach into the resources of our corporate soul, there resonates a grief from a common loss of home, of the places our ancestors left behind, may this grief inform our compassion and inspire us to heal the broken and the wounded with love. May we do this with God’s help. 

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why not me? And other thoughts on crap, God, and faith....

I am almost sixty years old and in the course of my life I have been blessed and I have experienced profound suffering. When the challenges last too long or are too intense I begin to wonder about God and faith and to question what I believe. 

No doubt, sometimes suffering happens because of my own foolishness. Sometimes I cause my own problems or I make them worse by my attitude or behavior. But, for example, when I hear someone blaming an individual for their life circumstances without recognizing the large socio-economic issues at play, such as when someone will suggest that people are poor because they are lazy or addicts, I think we need to be careful about judging others and casting blame. Sometimes suffering just happens, undeserved, unwarranted by anything a person has done or not done. Often, all of us in developed countries, because of how we live and what we eat, influence the global economy and contribute to poverty, immigration, and other social concerns. Sometimes there is a corporate accountability that needs to be recognized for the suffering of the world.  Likewise blaming God for suffering conveys something false about the character of God. God does not cause suffering. But, that God allows for suffering to exist in the world is one of the great mysteries of life. Why? The book of Job wrestles with these ideas. 

The story begins by telling us that Job is an exemplary person of faith, very faithful to God, a man of tremendous success, peaceful, wise, a good man. And then the Satan makes a bet with God, and everything in Job’s life changes - he loses his house, his means of making a living, his children all die, he is rejected by his community, his wife scorns him, and his friends blame him for the catastrophes that have befallen him. In this story the Satan is a member of God’s counsel, an advisor to God. The Satan is a metaphor, highlighting how random suffering is, striking without cause. And God allows it to happen. But in the end the Satan loses the bet. Job remains faith to God, Job does not lose his faith. He does however ask God about justice, God’s justice, in light of the profound suffering. 

We can ask the same question, where is God in the suffering of the world, where is justice? Where is God’s justice in school shootings? In the destruction of homes and lives from wildfires or hurricanes or any other natural disaster? Where is God’s justice in war and violence and terrorism? Why does God allow horrible things to happen and people to suffer?

We might ask other questions as well, such as, is our faith based on a “commodity principle” of belief? Do I expect God will bless me and my life will be good because I have faith in God? I use to think that way, the more I “believed” -  the more I tried to live the rules of the church -  the more “protected” I would be from suffering. I use to think that “believing” would guarantee a life of peace, or maybe grant me some kind of eternal reward. I believed in a consumerism God who doled out blessing like the values we hold in our capitalistic society, work hard and I will live the American dream, I will have everything I need and more. Believe hard and God will protect me from suffering. 

Except bad things have happened to me, as they do to all people: an illness strikes, a job is lost, pension is stolen by corporate greed, the stock market fails and retirement savings are lost, a loved one dies, suffering happens. No matter how “good” I am, there is no way to avoid suffering.

Paradoxically,  I’ve come to believe that because my life has been filled with tremendous challenges, deep profound, life changing challenges, that I am a better person, more compassionate and self-aware. Through those challenges I have come to recognize that God has journeyed with me and helped me to grow wiser. Eventually, despite all obstacles, and usually in hindsight, I come to see the ways that God was with me all along, through the trials and tribulations. God did not give me challenges to make me believe more, nor to make me stronger, nor to make my faith deeper, nor to punish me, nor to make me wise and more compassionate. God did not give me challenges. Life just happens and life is filled with challenges and suffering. It just is. The real question ought to be, “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I experience suffering and pain? Everyone else does, its life. That said, I assure you, I don’t like it. Not one bit.

How I live through suffering says a lot about my faith and why I believe. When life really sucks all I can do is trust that this too will pass and one day I will feel better and life will be better. And when life feels good, I give thanks and treasure it because I know it won’t last forever. I try to have some detachment to my feelings of despair and view them with some distance in order to not let them control my behavior. I try to not make others miserable just because I am. I continue to put one foot in front of the other. I keep going. I wait for the time to pass. I pray. I come to church. I stay in community and I work to stay in relationships, to have healthy relationships. I work on my self, to become more aware of my emotions and to tend to my physical health. I believe because I trust that God is with me and God will guide me through the crap, that ultimately God wants me, and you, to have a good, healthy, happy, peace-filled life, to whatever degree that is possible. 

The Gospel reading this morning takes us down a similar path albeit from a very different direction. The Pharisees continue to question and challenge Jesus, hoping to trip him up and catch him in some remark that they can use against him, to discredit him. Over and over, in response to these questions, Jesus replies with wisdom, seeing through their effort to have him convey a narrow sense of God. Over and over Jesus reveals the expansive wide open love of God. The teaching in Mark is less about the legality of divorce and more about justice, God’s sense of justice for all people, a radical hospitality and equality for the oppressed. Jesus gives examples of those most marginalized in society, women and children. 

When we accept God’s grace and have some experience of God’s love in our lives, then we are better able to see and love others as God loves, fully, equally. This expansive sense of God’s grace is intended to affirm our faith and sustain our trust when life is difficult. It is also intended to inform how we respond to the suffering of others - not as Job’s friends do, who blame him for his suffering - but by being compassionate and revealing to others God’s love in and through us. Jesus reminds us that our faith is intended to strengthen our reliance on God, sustain us with an attitude, a deep inner reality, that God is with us, even when there are no obvious signs of God’s presence. We do this by living community, feeling one another’s pain and suffering and, instead of blaming or judging, being wiling to be the face of Christ and the hands and heart of God, by loving one another as God loves us. 

Proper 22B: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jesus asks, Who do YOU say I am?....

It’s never been easy, or simple, for me to answer the question that Jesus asks the disciples,
“Who do YOU say I am?”

I’ve often wondered, “Who is Jesus to me?”

Messiah. Savior. Redeemer. Jesus. 

These words are heavy baggage in my lexicon. 

As a child I was taught about “right” and “wrong” and that God was counting every infraction. What I heard was, being a person of faith was all about “following THE rules.” The rules were not necessarily the ten commandments, and I didn’t even hear about the greatest commandment to love God, love self, and love neighbor, until I was an adult. What I learned was God was counting my sins and holding every one of them against me. So I better follow the rules or else.

My response to the idea that God was counting my sins and keeping track of every one of them, even the one’s that stayed in my head and were never said out loud or acted upon, was to try and be absolutely perfect.

As if perfection is possible.

The effort to follow the rules in order to be perfect meant that I was unable to have a full understanding of myself. Life is much more nuanced and gray than black and white, and no matter how simple and small and risk free one tries to live there is no way to live without every making a mistake or a bad decision or treating other’s poorly for time to time. 

The church of my childhood taught me that Jesus was the perfect example of someone who lived by rules and never sinned. Jesus was perfect. 

It’s no wonder I had a complicated relationship with Jesus. I became my own worst critic, nitpicking and anxious over the slightest infraction, or denying that I ever did anything wrong -  because  I was trying to keep score, I was trying to get to Terri, 100% perfect, God, 100% pleased.

The end result is that I was keenly aware of, ashamed of, and disappointed in my self and my inability to be perfect. I was insecure and felt unworthy. Not that I could talk to anyone about this. It was easier, so I thought, to go on pretending. Ultimately this kind of thinking was not good for my faith life, nor was it good for my relationships. As I matured I began to realize that the stereotypical Christian messages popularized in the media, some of which I had learned as a child, did not mesh with the way I experienced God. As a child God felt very present to me. God felt loving and kind, accepting me in all of who I was good, bad, whole, broken. It was Jesus who was the problem, at least the Jesus I was taught about. Mr. Perfection himself. I kept my distance from him, from that Jesus. 

I was in my thirties when I began to hear the human side of Jesus coming through the Gospel texts. I was astonished. Maybe, just maybe I could follow that Jesus? 

In the reading from Mark today we hear this same struggle, the disciples, especially Peter, struggling to understand the human and the divine natures of Jesus. Peter thinks of Jesus as the Messiah, meaning, from the human perspective, Jesus is going to have power and authority, he’s going to over throw the Roman government with a grassroots movement that will change the world. Soon the disciples will all be wealthy government officials serving a wealthy emperor king named Jesus! 

But Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity differently. Being human is not about perfection nor is about a narrow and rigid obedience of rules. Being human and living as Jesus teaches us is about love and compassion. It’s about understanding that suffering happens, we all suffer. Living from that place of love and compassion, we walk together into the abyss of despair. Jesus’ death is not about redeeming a sinful people because God is keeping score. Jesus death redeems sinful humanity because through Jesus God enters into our brokenness and suffers as we do. Jesus suffers with us. 

There are so many places in the world today where God is pleading with people, begging humanity to reveal God’s presence in the world through acts of love and compassion. At our worst we humans reject the broken people and a young refugee baby drowns, his photograph reminding people every where of the cost of selfishness. At our best, when we push Satan aside, push aside that which pulls us from God, and instead stand with signs and welcome refugees, the poor, and the marginalized, into our churches and communities, giving them clothing and shelter and food. When did I see you hungry, naked, and I gave you clothes and food? When did I see you, Jesus? 

Jesus reminds us that we are to follow him, take up our cross, deny ourselves. Taken literally these words have been used to justify suffering. Women in abusive relationships - it’s their cross to bear. People who are poor and suffering - it’s their cross to bear. Justified suffering minimizes what people have to do in response. We don’t have to wonder how our life style has contributed to the corporate greed that impacts the global economy, the world’s political state, or the environment. 

For those whose selves have already been denied by systems of oppression and violence, is “self-denial” really good news? 

What is the life that needs to be lost in order to be saved?
Consider what it would mean if people were no longer greedy or selfish and the impact that would have on the world.  Consider what it would mean if we none of us ever had to experience feelings of being unworthy and unloveable. 

Denying one’s self is not about accepting suffering. We are to deny that part of ourselves that we think is unloveable, that part of ourselves that world tells us deserves the suffering we are experiencing. 

Living as I was when I was trying to be perfect, when I could only see myself as good or bad, that too is a self that Jesus is asking us to deny. 

These are all false selves, built on artificial concepts and values that deny what it means to be a human being, so loved by God that God took on human flesh to be like us.

 Living a full life, one that embraces one’s whole self, means that we look at our failures and our successes, at what makes us good and the ways we are not good, and accept that together these make us whole. When we see ourselves fully, when we have compassion for ourselves, when we embrace the brokenness inside, we can begin to have compassion for others. To take up one’s cross, to suffer with another as Jesus suffered with humanity, is to put one’s self in another’s shoes, to walk their journey, and to feel their pain, and to help in anyway we can, because we acknowledge that we live this same broken life. This is life that Jesus is calling us too because he lived it too. Jesus knows us to our core. 

Who are you Jesus? 

You are me. You are you…and, you…and you…

(a reflection on Mark 8:27-38 for Proper 19B)

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Syrophenician Woman: Pondering Racism and Reconciliation

This week our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and our diocesan Bishop Wendell Gibbs invited all Episcopal Churches to participate in an ecumenical movement to work toward ending racism. We were asked to dedicate this day to pondering the sin of racism and how we can work for reconciliation.

Many years ago when I was in seminary the students and faculty had to participate in an anti-racism workshop. At the time anti-racism training was a new concept. One common refrain from a number of seminarians was, “I am not racist.” We all wanted to believe that and to believe that we really wanted equality and justice. The thing is, blatant racism is easily recognized and usually met with outrage, but more often racism appears in subtle ways, so systemic to our institutions, culture, faith, and politics that we fail to recognize it.

For example Christians often speak of the “dark night of the soul.” It’s meant to describe a desolate time when God feels distant and life feels particularly difficult. How we use the word “dark” has a way of reinforcing the idea that dark is bad, anything dark is bad and that influences how we perceive dark skinned people. Conversely it is also true that darkness is where life begins, darkness is where God often appears, darkness is transformative.

Here's another example. Years ago Dan and I were looking to buy a house. While house hunting I had the impression that one house, based on the lingering odor of cooking spices,  was owned by an Eastern Indian or Pakistani family. I remember having a visceral response, like the house was “dirty” and then thinking, that’s a racist response - I would not have had that response if the odor had been cinnamon and apples for example.

Have you ever thought about the messages we receive that perpetuate the subtle forms of racism? For example, have you ever noticed that the “bad guys” on television or in movies are almost always the person of color while the white people are heroes?

Now, all these years later I find myself pondering, again, the phrase, “I am not racist.” I don’t remember, but I think in seminary I was one of the people who raised my hand to this statement. Now I’d never say that, I’ve learned more about racism and the subtle ways it rears its head in me. 

The Bible offers us a few examples of God and of Jesus being changed by the human condition. Both Abraham and Moses argue with God and eventually change God’s mind. In our reading from Mark, Jesus encounters a Syrophenician woman, she is dark skinned, of a race that the Hebrew people of the day perceived to be outcasts and dirty. Jesus brushes her off and tries to ignore her plea. But she won’t be ignored, she speaks up, and ultimately changes Jesus’ heart and mind. The story of the deaf mute which follows shows us what happens when one is opened up, when we begin to see and hear, when we recognize how we are blind and deaf to the prejudice that lives within us. Most of us do not want to be racist, but we need to be open to the reality that we are, its part of the human condition, and we need to be willing to become aware, grow, change and move beyond our prejudices in all the ways they manifest. 

To that end Bishop Gibbs has invited us to participate in a task force on Race Relations and Diversity. In response we are hosting a meeting here at Christ Church on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 10am until noon.

Of this initiative Bishop Gibbs writes: “My hope for the Race Relations and Diversity Task Force is that it will lead the diocese in our corporate ministry to respond to the disease of hate that continues to infect our country through all the “isms” and “phobias” – racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. and move us toward an ethic of respect and gratitude for the incredible beauty of God’s full and diverse creation…”

I hope all of you will make an effort to attend this event on Saturday and learn how you, how we, can take an active role in this diocese to help heal the brokenness in our world, and therefore how we can be the hands and heart of Christ in the world. 

Reflecting on the readings for Proper 18B

Saturday, August 08, 2015

If I Think I'm Not lesson of white girl growing up in the 1970's

The first time I flew on an airplane was the summer of 1971. I was fourteen years old and we were moving to Ft. Worth, Texas. My mother dressed us in matching outfits - she and I wore blue dresses with white stripes, white sandals and floppy white straw hats. My dad and brothers wore blue and white striped shirts with white pants and white shoes. There’s a photograph of all of us at O’Hare airport in Chicago waiting to depart. I barely remember sitting for that photo and I have no memory of the flight. Memory is curious that way, leaving out huge details of one’s life while other aspects remain in sharp detail. 

That year I was in the ninth grade and attended Southwest High School in Ft. Worth. I played bass clarinet in the school band, took Spanish which I loved and algebra which I hated. The whole school would turn out for football games and the stadium vibrated when we sang the school song, “Dixie” while the Confederate flag flew above us. 

Before moving to Texas I had only lived in areas that were completely white, I had never met a person of color. I had only seen people on television, Martin Luther King, Jr., and footage of people rioting in the streets.

Now, here I was in a school that sang Dixie and flew the Confederate flag at the same time that it was preparing the student body and teachers to receive the first black students, a brother and a sister.  Desegregation was the law and this school was trying to comply.

I don’t remember anything about the process of preparing us, only that it happened. There was an electrical charge in the air, like famous celebrities were about to show up. Not long after the brother and sister arrived however, the atmosphere changed. Seething just below the surface  of polite behavior hummed the unreconciled racism of teachers and students. The band teacher started telling “jungle bunny” jokes in class. I didn’t understand them and turned to the black girl sitting next to me and asked her what they meant. She told me he was making fun of black people. I was mortified. That night I told my mother. Then I wrote a letter to the principal reporting the horrible behavior of the band teacher and how wrong it was of him to tell these jokes in class. A few days later I met with the principal, who in my memory was even-keeled. I followed up the letter and the meeting with the principal by quitting band, in protest of the teacher’s behavior.  

As an adult I am surprised that the timid 9th grader version of me took this action of protest. I stood up for something that was wrong and tried to right it. 

Lately, though, with the resurgence of racial tension and violence in this country I’ve been thinking again about my behavior in 9th grade. I think that if I had really wanted to take a stand against racism I would not have quit band. I would have reported the bad behavior and then returned to class and been present, holding me and others accountable to the racism in our midst.

Memory is funny that way. We can go a long time thinking one thing and then, with a sudden insight, our perspective can completely change.

Each one of us can tell a similar story as mine, of a failure to build relationship, of a time when prejudice and racism prevailed in subtle or not subtle ways. It is the reality of being a white person in the world. Racism resides deep within us even when we desire to not be racist.

What connections do you hear between my story, the reading from Ephesians, and the sin of racism? What connections do you hear about tearing apart communities or building up of community?
 (Leave time for people to respond). 

Today, the Vestry has designated the open plate offering, the loose cash and change, to the Rebuild initiative, an effort of churches in this diocese to raise funds to help the black churches, that were burned this summer, rebuild. There is a concert today at 4pm at Church of the Messiah on Grand Boulevard in Detroit with a donation of $20. Or you can submit a check, payable to Episcopal Diocese of MI with "Rebuilding the Churches" in the memo field, and leave it in the collection plate or send to the church office, we will forward them to the Diocese.

A reflection on racism and the reading from Ephesians for Proper 14B: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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