Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Why? Because... God...

Sometimes the most important questions are the ones we cannot answer.  And the most honest answers are, “I don’t know…” In the unknowing, in the inability to find our own words, sometimes we hear the call of God and his words become ours.  In my life, often, those moments come as a complete and utter surprise.

Recently, I was struck dumb by a question that should have been easy to answer, “Why do I go to church?”  To be honest, my church is going through a discernment process to find our way forward. We have the typical type of church crisis going on:  not enough members, not enough money, not enough vision to figure out how to afford and call a long-term priest. We have faced our share of conflict over theology, finances, and clergy.  We have lost priests, lost parishioners, and lost pledges. At times, we have lost our enthusiasm, our energy, and our passion. At times, we have flat out lost our patience--with each other and with our situation in the world.  Some of us may have lost parts of our faith, or at least questioned it seriously.

So, in order to figure out our path, we are trying to hold real and honest conversations with each other.  One night, I sat with a group of my brothers and sisters in the social hall, working through our “stuff”. And when I was posed the obvious question, “What keeps you at St. Ignatius?”  I had no earthly idea how to answer. I sat there, tearful, and mute. The obvious answers all felt inadequate;  could not speak them. I could not say I came to church for the worship, the fellowship, the formation, the service. Those were just surface-level reasons--not ones that went to the marrow of the bone.  That would have been like saying I married my husband because he’s tall and handsome, or that I chose to become a teacher because I like kids. When I contemplated all the love and anger that comprised my church life, all the celebrations and all the conflicts, I answered the only way I could. With tears in my eyes, I said, “I don’t know…”

I thought of the cost-benefit analysis of my church life and I truly wondered why I stayed.  I thought of the committees, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and community service. And I thought of the baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and wonderful friends.  If I weighed the time, money, and effort I put into church against the joy and love I got out of it, I wasn’t honestly sure how the scales would balance.   But, eventually, I also knew that it didn’t matter.  

Because as I sat there, waiting, unable to find the words, I realized.  I stay at my church because… Because… God…

Because, church is not merely about friends, and fellowship, and service.  Church is about God. A God who calls us into relationship with him through our relationships with each other.   He is not content to be worshipped from afar, in pristine conditions, in calm and peace. The God of love in Jesus Christ isn’t content to be found on the forests, or on the beach, alone.  He is the God who, out of his own love for his own creation, came right down and became a part of all of the mess. He is the God who loved the world so much that he gave himself for it. And he didn’t just give himself to be adored.  He gave himself so that we could love him like a real human, and so he could love us back. He showed up and lived with us, while the people misunderstood his message, while his followers fought over who was the best, and while the religious leaders persecuted him.  He is the God in Jesus Christ who showed up and taught and loved us, even when we hated him. Even when we killed him. And he showed us that death wasn’t the end. That grace is greater than that. He told us that whenever two or three are gathered, he will be with us. Two or three--not one on our own. So, my friends, go out and find each other.  Because the best way to love him is to love each other.

Sitting there, in that holy space, endeavoring to have that holy conversation, I found some truth.
Honestly, I still don’t know why I go to church.  I don’t know why God in Jesus Christ loves us so much that he calls us into relationship with each other so that we can see him.  I don’t know why I keep showing up and keep loving my fellow Christians. I do not know why--anymore than I know why I said, “Yes” when my husband asked me to marry him, or why I cried when I held my newborn babies for the first time, or why sometimes the Eucharist actually feels like Christ is in the room with me.  I don’t know why--but I do believe. I believe that we are meant to figure out how to love each other. I believe there is a mystery hidden deep in the heart of us and in the heart of the world. And that mystery is wrapped in love. And that love lives in each other.

So, I will show up again.  And I will hear the word. And I will say confession.  And I will kiss my brothers and sisters with the kiss of peace.  And I will eat and drink of the body and blood of Christ. And I will go out into the world to love and serve the Lord.

Because…  Well… Because… God.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Coffee and Community

Polarization is rampant in society today.  People spend our time in ideological social media silos, surrounded by those with whom we agree, isolated from those whose opinions differ from ours.  Civil discourse is dead.  People cannot hold rational arguments or even “agree to disagree” with respect.  Sociologists, philosophers, and theologians decry the current state of mankind.  We blame the overuse of technology, the economy, the educational system, the break-down of family values, systemic racism and the backlash against social justice, and, of course, the current presidential administration.  All and any of those factors are believed to lead to the political and personal fury that citizens unleash on each other daily.  Perhaps the experts are correct.  I pose a different theory.  Society’s breakdown lies in the way we make our coffee.

Coffee is the life-blood for so many people--the common ground (pun intended), the proverbial water-hole.  The strong, dark, hot liquid  fuels our population, sparking our intellect and our conversations.  Coffee drinkers understand each other.  We recognize and resonate with the need for caffeine in our fellow travelers.  We can see it in each other’s eyes.   Random strangers waiting in line at Dunkin Donuts can commiserate in the desire for that first cup of joe in the morning.  We might like our coffee sweet, or sweet and light, or strong and black.  But we all need the same thing, from the same pot, brewed at the same time.  Coffee makes connections.  Caffeine addicts, who prefer our drugs in the steamy, bitter liquid, take the basic substance and make it our own.  We drink from the communal pot and add what we need to make it our own.  

Consider the humble pot of coffee, brewing in the kitchens and workrooms across middle-America.  When I was a kid, neighbors and friends dropped in to my parent’s house frequently.  The first thing my mom did when someone walked through the screen door was put on a cup of coffee.  Friends sat for hours, drinking cup after cup from the same carafe, sharing conversations, stories, and feelings across the vinyl table-cloth.  My mom’s coffee wasn’t fancy, but she brewed it hot and strong.  You didn’t leave until the pot was empty and you were all talked out.  Sitting around the kitchen table, friends and neighbors discussed politics, religion, community life, family struggles.  They sipped and shared and listened.

In teacher’s lounges, churches, and lunchrooms around the country, workers gathered around the coffee pot.  The first person to arrive in the morning started the brew.  The last one to take a drop made a new pot, or at least cleaned it up.  Someone bought the supplies, and usually put out a donation can--a Folger’s or Hill’s brothers of some sort--for people to contribute to the coffee fund.  Someone stocked the cream and the sugar.  Each coffee pot is just a bit different from another.  Good friends can even tell who made the coffee by the strength of the brew.  
In churches and staff lounges, learning how to make a good pot of coffee is a rite of passage for newcomers.  In order to make an acceptable pot, a person has to pay attention and learn from a friend just how much to measure of the grounds and the water.  Making a pot means you belong to that place and that you care for the people there.  If a pot of coffee can build a community, perhaps the breakdown of our community lies in the advent of the Keurig.

Coffee is gracious and universal.  Keurigs are concrete and specific.  They are limited to the individual.  There is something a little sad to go to a friend’s house and be offered a K-cup to make my coffee. (Not to mention that the K-cup brew always seems so very small.  My eight cup a day habit just can’t be satisfied by four ounces at a time.)  It’s like sitting down to what could be a family-style chicken dinner and receiving an individually wrapped package of McNuggets.  No matter how delicious the coffee, I am on my own.  It’s all mine and I don’t have to share it.   No longer the pot of coffee sitting between two good friends who want to talk all morning long.  No longer the cry, “Come in!  Sit down!  I’ll put on the coffee…”  No longer do we sit around a pot and share it until it is gone (and then discuss if we should make another one).  Now, for each refill, we open another separate container for our own individual self.  We have traded abundance for allotments.

Coffee pots in a staff lounge are communal.  Keurigs are self-serving. In staff rooms and churches, no longer do we gather around a shared experience.  We bring our own particular pods, which we purchase on our own, with our own special brands and our own special flavors.  We use a machine to make just enough for us.  We throw away all the garbage (which can’t be recycled and fills up our landfills), but hey, it sure is convenient, right?  We don’t have to consider that anyone else might like some coffee when we start our day.  We don’t have to make another pot if we take the last cup.  We don’t have to pay attention to who left the pot on at the end of the day.  We take care of ourselves and only ourselves.

I have a four-cup coffee pot in my classroom and I keep it running most of the day.  It’s not fancy. Sometimes it splutters and spills and makes a mess.  It is part of our community life.  My friends know where to go to get their coffee.  There is always enough and I can always make another pot.  If they need some and I just finished it, they make another.   We are considerate and we share the load.  We don’t always agree with each other.  Some days we might not even like each other. But, we do understand each other.  We see a need in our fellow travelers and we meet it.  We care for our coffee pot and we care for each other.  Maybe my silly little coffee pot and my Folger’s brew is making the world a better place, one pot at a time.  So, open up your hearts and minds and return to the shared pot of coffee.  Care for each other through caffeine.

Maybe it’s time to throw out your $200 machine and buy a $20 Mr. Coffee.  Ask your neighbor if he wants to visit and tell him, “I’ll put on a pot…”

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday Christian

I know where grief lives inside my body.  I can put my hand over the spot.  It’s below my left breast, pretty much where I place my hand to say the pledge of allegiance.  Grief moved in there years ago when I lost my father.  It took hold of me and squeezed.  It hurt.  My heart hurt.  I lay on the floor, gasping, and holding my chest, and I thought, “This is what it feels like.”  Since that introduction, grief wakes up in the face of all sorts of sad events:  when loved ones die, when good friends lose a child, when we say goodbye to a beloved pet.  That spot in my heart stabs and aches.  It stabs and aches on Good Friday.

People say that there are “Good Friday Christians” and “Easter Sunday Christians”.  I am a “Good Friday Christian”.  The grief I carry in my heart needs an outlet, and that outlet is the passion of Christ and the veneration of the cross.  For me, without that, the rest of the Christian faith would be just false cheer and whistling past a graveyard.  It would be hope and rainbows and magic promises.  Good Friday is when sh*t gets real.

Good Friday is when we all cry “Crucify Him!”  It is when our righteous indignation and anger result in the death of God.  We participate in the passion to remind us that we, too, are capable of horrible acts.  We participate in the story so we recognize our own tendency to screw things up, to miss the mark, and to hurt ourselves and others.  And we grieve.  We grieve for our own brokenness and the pain that it has wrought in our lives.  But we are not alone in our grief.  We listen to the Lord, crucified by his own people, by our own selves, cry out in pain, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me!”  And that is when the grief in my heart joins the love of God.

God sees me while I sit and worship, while I sing, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?”  God sees me as I kiss the wooden feet of Jesus on the cross.  It isn’t easy to be seen as I am and still be loved.  It means I have to be honest about my failures and forgive myself for them.  And, as I forgive myself, I must forgive those who also failed me.  It means that the universal, catholic love and grace of God that sees me as I am and still loves me, also loves every other person, just as they are.  For that sacrifice was made for each and every individual one of us, just as we are.  We all cried “Crucify” and we are all loved.

As I sit in the darkened, bare church, listening to the Gospel reading, I am overcome, again and again. In the image of Jesus’s final sacrifice for all of mankind, my grief and the grief of the world is bound by love.  God-made-man, the divine incarnate, gave up his power to the evil of the world, laid down his life in scandalous surrender, crying out for his God.  Within in this exquisite pain, there is no rationalization, no mental gymnastics, no search for meaning.   I weep, my throat closes up, and my heart breaks open, one more time.  The only real thought in my head is, “make me worthy of this sacrifice, Jesus.”  Jesus saved me, with all my pettiness, selfishness, and brokenness.  I long to be worthy of the immense gift of God’s love.  As I sit crying in the dark, God holds me in my grief, stitching my scars together with love.

I know where grief lives inside my body.  It lives in my heart, surrounded by love.

Blessed Good Friday.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The tyranny of politeness--no more "walk up not out"

Make new friends.  Mix it up and sit with someone at lunch.  

All of these are great ideas for educators and parents to instill in their children.  As a middle school teacher and a parent of three, I want my students and my children to be kind and respectful to everyone.  I want them to include others, to stand up to bullies, and to befriend those who do not have friends.  I try to lead by example and encourage these values and behaviors every day at school and at home.  But there is something insidious about implying that by being polite to others, we could stop gun violence.  There is something offensive about telling kids to be nice to people so they don’t get shot.

I wasn’t a very friendly student in high school.  I had a small group of friends and I enjoyed school and learning.  But, I was also an introverted, intellectual snob who snubbed most of the social events and structures.  I played the french horn, for God’s sake.  I wore t-shirts with wolves on them.  I sneered at cheerleaders.  I joked that the football players must barely have IQs of 85.  I read Vonnegut and Shakespeare and I thought people who did not must be vapid, ignorant cretins.  I’m pretty sure I was a pain-in-the-ass to some and invisible to most.  I wasn’t very angry and I certainly wasn’t violent.  But, I really, really would’ve detested being told to “walk up” to someone.

If the homecoming queen or quarterback had sat down at my lunch table, I would have been appalled.  I didn’t mind working together on group projects or biology labs, but why on earth would I want to spend my precious leisure time with people who seemed to have nothing in common with me?  I pretty much felt I was better than most people--smarter, funnier, more ironic.  I’m not proud of how I behaved.  I know I missed out on some wonderful people by closing myself off to them.   But, if my high school had held a “mix-it-up day”, I would have gagged on my own derision.  I didn’t need forced politeness to navigate my high school years.

What I did need, and what I received from my teachers and certain peers, were a few authentic relationships.  I was trying so hard to find myself that I made it hard for others to find me.  I had a few teachers who truly saw me, who noticed when I was reading Vonnegut, and invited literary criticism, who must have ignored my sneers enough to teach me some empathy through literature and friendship.  I had a few friends who accepted me, who indulged my sense of irony, and who seemed to think my snarky attitude was endearing (or at least harmless).  Through my high school years, I was fortunate to find a few people who listened when I spoke, challenged my arguments, reinforced my endeavors, and recognized my thinking.  I am very doubtful that those kinds of relationships would be built by a “walk up not out” day.

Of course, the truth is, I was in no danger of shooting up a school.  I was a mostly well-adjusted teenager with a strong nuclear family and strong academic motivation.  But, I wasn’t nice, not very often, not really.  And, in the early 1990s, my “not-niceness” was a luxury.  No one bothered me or tried to cheer me up or make me more polite.  No one sent me a message that if I wasn’t nice to the quiet kid in the corner, I might get shot.  No one sent me a message that they were being nice to me because I WAS the quiet kid in the corner, and they were afraid that I was going to shoot them.  I had the space and the freedom to be as cranky as my teenage self desired.  

When I go to work, I spend my energy noticing students’ thoughts, their reactions, and their individual emotions.  I give them space to be angry, or surly, or sarcastic.  I don’t urge them to all be friends, or to even be friendly.  Some days, that just doesn’t work.  I do try to truly SEE them, as I was truly seen by a few people during my formative years.  I do this because it was transformational to me and I hope it will transform others.  I don’t do it in order to prevent another school shooting.

Let’s be honest about the fact that our kids aren’t safe.  Let’s stop telling them to solve their own problems by sitting with new kids at lunch.  Let’s build infrastructure in struggling schools, so teachers have time and energy to actually make relationships with students and nurture them.    Let’s start having real, problem-solving conversations about common sense laws to reduce the number of guns.  Let’s stop the tyranny of politeness and start protecting our children.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Unspeakable Tragedy"--One More Shooting

 Sometimes we become numb to horror.  We forget what words mean because we hear them so frequently.  Yesterday, someone walked into a school filled with children and shot them.  Yesterday, people died doing what I do every day, teaching kids.  Yesterday, when the article came over my newsfeed about a school shooting, the most shocking part was my lack of shock.  As I sat at my desk, in my classroom, in my hallway, just like other teachers who were being gunned down that day, I thought, “Oh that’s sad.  Another one…”  Most of my loved ones spend their day in schools--my husband, my children, my extended family, my best friends.  Any one of them could have been in that school with that shooter.  And I just went on with my day.

This morning, as our principal announced a staff meeting at 8:00, I wasn’t affected by the idea that we were going to discuss how to keep ourselves and our students safe from a gunman.  I was more annoyed that I had to change my agenda for the curriculum meeting that was just canceled. Here we go again, I thought.  Review the crisis plan and update the information.  When these horrific events happen, we all say the same words, “unspeakable tragedy”, again and again.  Yes, it is unspeakable.  Because it happens so frequently that we don’t even bother to speak of it anymore.  It happens so often that we just click past the images of one more every-day tragedy.

When did mass murder become commonplace?  When did the photos of traumatized children and grief-stricken parents become familiar?  When did lock-down drills and crisis plans become the “new normal” for school employees?  Why on earth wasn’t I incensed by the idea that everyone I love could die just because they were doing their daily job.  Why on earth wasn’t I enraged that my place of work became a battlefield?

I didn’t wake up until a friend spoke up during the meeting.  When I heard her impassioned plea, “What are we (the administration, the school board, and the teachers) going to DO about this?”  The quiver in her voice broke through my nonchalance and empowered my impotence.  I do not know what to do.  But I do know that something must be done.  I cannot accept that there is nothing we can do to stop children dying in their places of learning.  

I do not know the answer.  I have heard suggestions:  safer school buildings, more money for security to guard our greatest resource, our children, mental health screening and support for those who need it, programs to build kindness and empathy among our youth so no one feels the need for violence, sensible gun laws can be enforced effectively.  I do not know the answer, but I cannot stop asking the question.

I am no longer numb.  I am enraged and empowered.  I do not want to speak of one more "unspeakable tragedy" of children murdered while they learn.  I want to stop speaking of it and begin making change.

Please leave a comment with an idea of some action to take.  I am listening...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Celebrate whiteness--What are you talking about?

The best lessons surprise me and shock me into a new understanding. Recently, I heard something surprising from Dr. Felicia LaBoy, a vibrant, inspiring African-American minister, during an anti-racism workshop, “You white people, lay down the guilt.  God made you white.  Celebrate being white.  It is part of the incarnation that made you the way you are.”

Wait, what? I was confused.  Celebrate being white?  When for years, I have been learning about systemic racism and white privilege?  When my white ancestors enslaved, oppressed, and committed genocide upon people of color for hundreds of years?  When my “white brother and sisters” are protesting the removal of Confederate statues with violence and vitriol?  Whiteness seems to only signify oppression and racism.  Why on earth would I celebrate that?

As I let her words soak into my brain, maybe I understood her point just a little.  For whatever God-only-knows reason, I was born with white and middle-class, with pale skin and blue eyes and parents who owned a home and had steady jobs.  We weren’t rich and we weren’t highly educated.  I grew up in Appalachia, the southeast corner of Ohio, and we struggled to pay bills just like every other family I knew.  I was the first person in my immediate family to earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree.  We were just regular, white people, trying to make a living.  Why should I celebrate?

Maybe celebrating whiteness doesn’t mean celebrating racism.  Maybe it means acknowledging in a positive way the gifts of privilege and the culture that shaped me.  I grew up feeling safe and respected--at home, at school, at work.  Teachers understood my family dynamics, because they were similar to their own.  Police treated me kindly when they dealt with me, because I was not seen as a threat.  Most of my friends shared some version of my Christian faith and celebrated similar holidays.  I grew up feeling attractive and intelligent.  I had strong role positive role models.  People treated me as if they expected me to achieve.  They listened when I spoke, if I spoke respectfully and intelligently.  I learned that I had something valuable to contribute to a conversation. I grew up confident, self-assured, and eager to try new adventures. These are gifts.  They are gifts that every child should have, but every child does NOT.  But, maybe I can learn to acknowledge those gifts, even as I work to lay the privilege aside.

The gift of my whiteness taught me that if I work hard and treat others with respect, I can achieve success in life.  That was a gift and it served me well.  I know now that others have to work much harder than I did to get half as far.  I know now that others had to learn to endure hatred and bigotry with nonviolence.  I can celebrate the lessons I learned from my loving family and still acknowledge the patent inequity of society.  Understanding privilege causes me to understand the embarrassment of riches that has created my life.  

If I can celebrate what makes me who I am, and own my whiteness, with all the gifts that it brings, maybe I can celebrate others.  Maybe when I acknowledge the gifts of privilege, I can work for an equitable society, where the gifts of respect, tolerance, and understanding are truly given to all.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Trinity, Community, and Forgiveness

Sometimes God smacks me in the head--literally smacks me in the head.  Like when I am planning a carefully crafted, passive-aggressive comment to a person who I am trying to forgive, and I literally walk into a wall.  I walk into a wall with such force that it brings tears to my eyes and raises a welt on my forehead.  In those moments, I wonder why I am so hard-headed that I keep missing the point.  I keep missing the point that God is calling us to forgive each other and to live in community with each other, not to speak with passive-aggressive words, but to speak the truth from my heart.

Recently, I heard a sermon on the Trinity and something struck me (not literally struck me, like the wall, but figuratively struck my thoughts).  God is a community in godself.  God is not one being with one will and one thought.  God is the blessed three-in-one.  God is a trinity of three beings, bound together by love.  If we are made in God’s image, perhaps that means not that we physically look like God, but that we are designed to act like God.  We are designed to live as a community, not one being with one will and one thought, but multiple beings, bound together in love.  We are not like God when we are alone in our plans and priorities, when we only think of ourselves, or when we put our own needs above others.  We are like God when we work with each other in love.  

That doesn’t mean we all agree.  In the doctrine of the Trinity, we could assume that three separate and equal beings have separate minds and separate wills.  In our community, we should expect to disagree, sometimes with passion and anger.  When we disagree, we are called to behave like God.  We are called to confront each other honestly and to hold each other accountable.  The best example for behaving like God in human form is Jesus.  From the gospels, we have examples of Jesus.  We have examples of Jesus speaking for those on the margins of society, speaking for inclusion and love for all, speaking for standing up for the least of these.  We have examples of Jesus challenging his followers to greater learning and greater sacrifice.  We have examples of Jesus standing up to the forces of oppression and violence.  We have examples of Jesus healing people, forgiving sins, and holding people accountable for their actions.  We do not have examples of Jesus writing passive-aggressive emails, or gossiping, or dissembling in the face of a bully.  

In moments of crisis, often I am torn between forgiving those who have caused pain and standing up for those who were hurt.  If I allow those who have caused pain back into my life in order to forgive them, am I betraying my friends whom they have hurt?  I am afraid that I don’t have the strength and the wisdom.  How will I know when to confront and when to forgive?  How will I walk in love with my fellow Christians and still stand up to bad behavior?  How does a loving community deal with conflict and anger?  We will all make mistakes, sometimes really big mistakes.  We all need to practice forgiveness, and we all need to hold each other accountable to act in love.  It is not easy and I do not know the way forward most of the time.

These are not new words and new ideas.  Christians have been speaking and preaching the path of love for centuries.  And we still screw it up.  Some people, it seems, have the best of intentions but lack the clarity and discipline to enact their loving plans.  Some people, it seems, honestly desire to sow conflict rather than collaboration.  Some people, it seems, just plain wear us out with their mistakes, intentional or not.  Some people, it seems, (all of us) just keep screwing it up, again and again and again.  So, we preach it again and again and again and we try to learn to forgive.  We screw it up and we preach and we listen and we try to come together one more time, even if it seems that it won’t work or that we don’t have the strength.  We try forgiveness because it is the hardest thing, but the only thing that works.

As God taught me by smacking me in the head, the path forward is NOT through passive-aggressive words and gossip.  The path forward into love is to through direct, honest, and vulnerable conversation. God, please give me the strength and the wisdom to walk the path.