Saturday, April 23, 2016

Love, maturing in faith

When my daughter was young she had a habit of taking her time getting ready to leave the house. This was not much of a problem when she was really small and I could just pick her up when it was time to go. But as she grew older the challenge of leaving the house in time to get anywhere when we needed too became almost impossible. One day when she was a teenager Dan and I were at an art fair and we saw a handprinted plaque that read, “I am mostly good at sleeping and wish there was a future in it.” We bought it for her. Eventually we started telling her that we had to be someplace earlier than we actually had to be. So for example we’d tell her we had to be some place at 9am when we really had to be there at 9:30. We called this Jessi time. That pattern worked fairly well for a number of years. So imagine my surprise when my grown daughter started being ready on time and arriving places on time. I couldn’t believe it, I thought for sure she’d never outgrow her tendency to be late. 

One of the gifts of having older children is the pleasure of seeing one’s child mature into his or her own person, to become who they are, no longer the child who needs parental guidance.

As Christians we often speak of God as a parental figure, God the father. We often use language that describes us as children of God. I, personally, am not fond of this kind of language. To me it runs the risk of infantilizing human beings and teaching us that we do not need to grow into a mature faith.

However, if we think of ourselves as children of God who are learning how to become our own person, conscious of being shaped and formed by God’s love as we grow into a mature adult faith, then I can manage this image of “Child of God.” The Christian life is a growth process of maturing in faith.

What does a mature faith look like? Karen Armstrong, in her book, The Spiral Staircase, writes about the difference between faith as a belief and faith as a practice. Armstrong writes that religion is not about having to believe or accept certain propositions, instead religion is about doing things that change a person. In her book on Islam she describes how Muslims are not expected to accept a creed, rather they are required to perform rituals, prayers, pilgrimages, and fasts which are designed to bring forth a personal transformation. The religious life is supposed to transform how one lives and who one is through what one does. God’s action in the resurrection of Jesus is an act of transformation, of new life. Our readings in the Easter season help us understand how we as Christians are called to live in order that our lives can be transformed.

Acts tells the story of the emerging early church, of the disciples learning to do the work of Christ in the world – of caring for others and sharing the Good News of God’s love for all people. It also shows the struggle of the disciples, the tension of spreading out into the world, of encountering new and different people. Acts tells the story of a maturing people of faith, learning to navigate the complexities of life.

The grace of the book of Revelation is its ability to offer comfort to suffering people. Although it is written in coded poetic language, which makes it pretty confusing to most of us, the people around the world who experience persecution tend to understand it. The words assure the suffering of God’s great love for all humanity. This is not a story that predicts the calamities that will befall humanity at the end of the world. The Book of Revelation is story of love in the midst of sorrow, grace in response to fear, hope in response to loss and oppression.

In the Gospel of John Jesus says he is giving a new commandment, that we love one another. But it is not new from the sense that no one before this moment had been commanded by God to love. What’s new about it, in the way Jesus means it, is its  intention, the action, the doing, of love. To love more than just this person or that person, and instead to love all people. This is a commandment to action, it is not a commandment to believe the right thing, but to do the right thing, love. This love is not an emotion nor is it a feeling. It is a verb. To love means to respect the dignity of every human being. To love means to struggle through the challenges of life trusting that in the end one will find new life. To love means to share the gifts of life with one another, food, clothing, shelter, money. To love means to see the good in others. To love means to hold one’s self and others accountable and to seek reconciliation when necessary, to living in right relationship with each other. 

A mature faith is willing to take a step into the unknown, take the risk to do what God is calling, to reach out and love others as God loves. To love in this way is a new commandment because in doing so we too are made new again. 

a reflection on the readings for Easter 5C: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tabitha, somebody indeed

One day a rabbi, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed in before the ark, fell to his knees, and started beating his chest, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”

The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by the rabbi’s passion, joined the rabbi on his knees. “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”

The custodian, watching from the corner, couldn’t restrain himself, either. He joined the other two on their knees calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”

At which point the rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!” (“How Can I Help” by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman).

Who are the nobody’s? Who goes unseen? 

At clergy conference this week, as part of the Diocesan year of Race and Diversity Reconciliation, we were invited to reflect on the book, “Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter,” written by Lindsay Hardin Freeman. Lindsay facilitated the conference, so it was extra special to be with the author. Here at the church our Tuesday Bible study group read this book and had many lively discussions because the women in the Bible are bold, sometimes outrageous, and take huge risks for their faith. That said, many of the women in the Bible were nobodies, often un-named. However, some of the women are named and a few have a voice. Ninety-three women speak in the Bible, for a total of 14,056 words. To put this in context, a typical state of the union address is 7000 words. Still, it’s remarkable that the words of women are recorded at all. No other religion records the words of nearly 100 women. By comparison, the Bible is quite amazing in lifting up the nobodies and giving them voice. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus tells us. 

Our reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles names a woman, although she does not speak. Tabitha is an Aramaic name which is translated as Dorcas in Greek. Both names mean gazelle, strong, swift, graceful. Tabitha, Dorcas, is a strong, gifted woman. She makes clothes and serves the poor. She is loved by all and her death has caused tremendous grief in the community. Peter is summoned to help, and following other examples in the Bible, Peter raises Tabitha from the dead and brings her back to life. You’d think that getting her life back would cause Tabitha to say something. But if she did, no one thought to record it. She’s named, but voiceless. 

The other area we reflected on at clergy conference was racism. We were asked, what do we need to do to address racism in our lives? One thing we said we need to do is recognize when racism is rearing up. In particular we need to learn how to recognize our prejudice - whether it’s in the words we use or the attitudes we hold or simply in our inability to see others for who they are. This discussion at clergy conference reminded me of a presentation that was made in the Trinity Institute’s Saturday morning session in January, which we broadcasted at St. Paul’s Lutheran here in Dearborn. The speaker, Kelly Brown Douglas, an Episcopal priest and Professor and Director of the Religion Department at Goucher College in Baltimore, talked about the systemic connection in this country of black bodies being seen as slaves to black bodies being seen as criminals - that people, including police officers do not see black bodies as human beings - they are just bodies, once dehumanized as slaves and now criminals. As just body’s they are essentially nobody, objectified as slaves or criminals. Think about it. Do you see other people as human beings with feelings and integrity or as body’s, as nobody? Turns our that most people have no idea, no awareness what so ever. 

Someone at clergy conference mentioned that they struggle every time they see a woman in traditional Muslim attire - this person automatically wonders if there is a bomb hidden under the hijab and long robes. They recognize that this is not a rational thought, that it is racist, but it is the first thought they have. Others commented on locking their car doors when they approach certain intersections or when young black males are near by. Understanding the unconscious ways we have absorbed racism into our beings is crucial to learning how might come to see all people as fully human. 

In today’s text we never hear Tabitha speak. We do not hear her experience through her words. Was she happy that people missed her so much that they wanted her to return to them? Was she pleased that Peter raised her from the dead? Or did she think, rats! I was finally getting some real rest, and now you’ve come and disturbed me…? Okay, I’m being a little silly, but the point remains, we don’t know what she would have said about this experience because she is voiceless. 

Despite Tabitha’s silence, what one might take away from Peter raising Tabitha from the dead, is the assurance that whenever one is done in and feeling like a nobody,  unable to see one’s self for who one really is, there is the real possibility of God’s presence. God comes when we least expect it and like a helping hand pulls one up, that one might live. For in being seen, heard, and loved, for who one really is, beloved of God, one cannot be a no-body, devoiced, dehumanized, objectified. Instead, made in God’s image, beloved of God, each person is fully human, a somebody, made whole and fully alive. 

a reflection on Acts 9:36-43, for Easter 4C

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Curious, Thomas....

Early on a gray and dreary morning I made my usual long walk to the elementary school where I was in the sixth grade. The entrance to the school was odd, below ground level by a few stairs, with open sides where kids would sit at street level but could then jump down to the front doors. That morning I was lost in my thoughts as I walked from the stairs to the doors, and so I was startled when a couple of boys jumped off of the side walls and on to me, attempting to tackle me to the ground. I was completely taken off guard, but somehow I managed to untangle myself from these boys and hurry into the school. The episode left my heart racing as I walked down the hall and into class. Perhaps having three younger brothers who were prone to roughhousing inoculated me a bit to the surprise of the boys jumping me. Still, when I think of that moment, I remember feeling surprised, violated, humiliated at being jumped on, and even some shame because I did not seeing it coming. 

Shame, humiliation, violence, are common experiences in our lives, although the degree of these varies from person to person. Sometimes these are physical, sometimes they are verbal, psychological or even spiritual attacks to our person. Sometimes they are just perceived attacks, vulnerable as we are we can perceive something relatively meaningless as something greater than it is. The perception of humiliation and shame is enough to shut one down, or as is often the case, it might make one angry. Transferring my feelings of shame and humiliation into anger is what happens to me. Anger is a trigger emotion for me, telling me that I need to step back and evaluate a situation. I know it takes time for the feelings to settle down, for the emotional reactivity to cool off, before I can begin to see a situation with more perspective. But when I do this well I am like an investigator on a television crime show, I want to know more and I begin by asking questions of myself. Why am I reacting so strongly? Is this really about me? What is underneath the anger? Shame? Fear? What has been triggered from my past, igniting old feelings that are more about a past experience than they are about this one? I work to move into a position of inquiry and out of a position of judgement and self righteous indignation. 

So imagine how the disciples are feeling on this Sunday, a week after Jesus has been crucified and then resurrected. On that first day they were huddled in the upper room, still mourning Jesus’ death and feeling angry with themselves for betraying him. Failing is painful. No one likes to be a failure, even if Jesus predicted they’d abandon him. They were also probably feeling a little self-righteous, because at least they were still alive and had avoided crucifixion themselves. Which, of course, made it worse. Who knows? We don’t have a record of their thoughts and feelings that early morning. All we know is that the women went to the tomb and learned that Jesus had risen and they ran off to tell the disciples, who did not believe them. The disciples lived in a state of disbelief until Jesus appeared to them. However, Thomas wasn’t in the room when Jesus first appeared. So, of course Thomas was incredulous, and unbelieving, who wouldn’t be?

But here’s the thing I keep thinking about. Despite what he’d heard, and regardless of how terrible he must have felt, Thomas showed up. He heard the others talking about Jesus reappearing, he knew their fear and concern, he too felt the guilt and the despair for all that had happened. He could have just gone on his way, avoided the whole thing, been angry and withdrawn, he could have left the group in self-righteousness. He could have left because that is one of our human response to feeling vulnerable and hurt, we check out, we leave, or at least we want too. But Thomas didn’t do any of that. He had to have had all these emotions but he showed up anyway. He came to the upper room and joined the rest of them. And Jesus shows up again, too. I mean if anyone was entitled to anger and self-righteous indignation, it was Jesus. But Jesus is not angry, he is gentle and patient, and speaks with compassion. Jesus understands because he is able to see a bigger picture than just what happened to him and how he is feeling. He is able to see and understand that this is what happens when people get afraid, feel vulnerable, and act defensively. In response Jesus models compassion and kindness. He’s not naive, he still has his wounds - he even shows them to the disciples. He’s clear about what happened to him, he’s just not acting out in anger.

What can be learned from this is that the only way to become whole again is to integrate the pain and suffering and vulnerability by staying with the feelings until a bigger, fuller picture can be imagined. This bigger picture isn’t about anger or judgement or projecting one’s own feelings onto others. Instead, one sees both one’s self and others from a place of inquiry, questioning, and ultimately compassion. Here, Jesus says, touch my hands and my side, touch my wounds, touch my pain and vulnerability, its mine, and its yours.

Like Jesus’ body in the resurrection, the wounds are never gone. But neither our wounds nor our scars need to define us by making us bitter and angry. Instead, they can be part of what shapes us into richer, fuller human beings who are capable of integrating hurt with love.

In that moment of integration a transformation occurs. Easter, the resurrection, is an embodied experience of love and grace that transforms life. God is here with us, breathing in and through us, our pain, our suffering, our sorrows, our brokenness, our heartache, our anger, our cruelty, and all the ways we hurt ourselves and one another, God is with us, breathing peace in and through us. Breathing so that we can catch our breath, gain perspective, forgive ourselves and forgive others. Breathing opens us up and enables us the space to find peace and thus the potential to love the broken pieces of our lives in such a way that we are made whole again. 

a reflection on John 20:19-31

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