Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Breathing Through A Reed

i've been breathing through a reed
underwater
without realizing it
too cautious in my surroundings
to trust breathing deeply
too tired of treading water
to thrust upwards for a view
of the sky
i've been trusting GOD's presence in the water
to keep me afloat
and it is good
but GOD is also beyond the water
i yearn for that glimpse
that new perspective
on life
and the holy
for a vision of air
beyond my submerged reed

Monday, September 28, 2009

P.S. to "Beloved"

A preacher's sermons are inevitably informed by experience---her own experiences, the experiences of congregants or others she knows, as well as communal/global experiences. So it is no surprise that my sermon on 9/27 had "Beloved" as its undertone. The scripture texts are Esther (excerpts of chapters 1 - 5) and Mark 9:38-41.

BEAUTY IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Sides are being taken everywhere we turn. Divisions and opposing positions are being constantly outlined over politics, religion, nationality, class, war, global warming, race, taxes, access to health...you name it. Lines of division are played out in almost every environment--work, school, neighborhoods and nations, churches--as they have been for decades and even centuries. Everywhere we turn. Although the lines aren't new, the intensity of anger surrounding these divisions between people seems to have increased in volume recently.

Much of the anger and angst over these lines is due not just to the existence of the lines, but to the value that is assigned to people according to the lines: the assumptions that we make (individually and as a society) about who is good, who is trustworthy, who is beautiful, who is acceptable...and who is not good, who is not to be trusted, who is not beautiful, who is not acceptable.

Worth, or the assessment of beauty, is in the eye of the beholder as we stare at each other across the lines.

Lest we think that these lines are merely theoretical or that we can ignore the lines as we please: think for a minute about someone you know (or maybe yourself) who has been hurt, who has been limited, who has been put down because (s)he is on the side of a line that is less valued. Think about the person you know who is financially strained to the point of breaking by the costs of medical care, and the lines being drawn by politicians over health care are no longer theoretical. Think about the same-gender couples you know who share a strong and supportive relationship, and suddenly the lines being drawn by churches over sexuality are no longer theoretical. Think about the African American child you know who is told by a classmate that her curly hair isn't beautiful, and the lines being drawn between neighbors and nations over race are no longer theoretical. Think about someone you know and love who has been told, in one way or another, "You are different, so you are not as good" or "You're different, so I like you less."

The lines that divide us are not just theories: they are tangible and painful experiences. Each line that is used to identify who is beautiful and who is not, who is more good and who is less good--every line is personal. And, equally important, every line, every marker of division, is a critical matter for faith. As people of faith, we have an immediate, urgent decision to make--not just once, but every day in every moment, in every encounter: will we be people who draw lines of division or people who cross those lines? Will we look across a line and see our fear of the unfamiliar, or will we look across a line and see a beautiful image of God?

Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

Our scripture readings leave no question as to how we should answer these questions, as we are pointed toward two people who crossed lines of social division in bold ways:

Start with Esther, a beautiful virgin who is chosen out of many beautiful young women to be King Ahasuerus' latest queen. Physical beauty, however, does not equal political power for Esther, who has no authority to cross lines of gender in the king's court. And Mordecai, Esther's adoptive father, has forewarned her not to cross lines of religion and ethnicity in the palace, so no one knows that she is Jewish. Esther lives within all of these societal lines, valued for her beauty but otherwise devalued as a woman and a closeted Jew; she toes every line around her...

...until the lines become personal. Until Haman gets mad at Mordecai and decides to take it out on all Jews. Until the image of God in her people--beautiful to her eyes and to Mordecai's eyes--is hated in the eyes of Haman, who makes the Jews his target for malice and violence. At that point, in that moment, Esther becomes a line-crosser. She steps across lines of gender and lines of authority to approach the king directly with her appeal. She crosses lines of religion and ethnicity to challenge the king's vision and presumptions about the value of her people. Esther crosses lines when Haman is intent on drawing lines. "For such a time as this."

Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

If we're unconvinced that crossing lines is a matter of faith, or that it's a priority of living out our faith, we only have to look at Jesus and his ministry to understand that breaking down lines of division is integral to the work of the Kingdom of God! Jesus crossed social lines at every turn: touching and healing and teaching and feeding people across strict divisions of ethnicity, physical ability, class, emotional and mental state, gender, health status, political affiliation.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus even goes so far in his line-crossing as to affirm (ready for it?) the ministry of someone who is not part of his own group of disciples. Consider how radical that would be today, if churches affirmed one another's ministries, if we trespassed denominational lines to see the beauty in our diversity of ministries! Jesus told his disciples, "Regardless of the affiliation of this other miracle worker, he is doing God's work just as we are. There is goodness in his work. There is no less value in the cup of water that he shares with someone who is thirsty than the cup of water that you share."

Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

It is a matter of faith to witness to the beauty we see, the beauty that God sees, against the prevailing noise of bad news and divisions. The church is long overdue in making the lines of separation personal, in prioritizing the work of following Jesus across these lines. When we each know so many stories of how these lines cause injury, when the news itself is increasingly divisive, we cannot keep silent or pretend that we have said and done enough to affirm the beauty and inherent worth of all people. Across lines of ethnicity and race. Across lines of creed and lines of gender. Across lines of ability and health and power and sexuality and finances. Having the courage to see and to celebrate the beautiful image of God, regardless of and in resistance to the loud shouting and bitter anger that seek to maintain strict divisions between us. Seeing and celebrating and standing up for beauty in all manners of diversity. Crossing lines of division--not because we are such brilliant and bold visionaries--but because God has the brilliance of vision to behold us and call us beautiful. God is the ultimate beholder who compels us to see the beauty of the image of God in all people. God is the ultimate beholder who sees us and loves us and challenges us to cross lines for the Kingdom of God.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beloved

This morning, my daughter pranced out the door on her way to another day of second grade. She was pleased as peach with her self-selected outfit, her dark curly hair (inherited from her Kenyan father, kept "down" with a headband today), and the academic activities ahead (she loves school).

This afternoon, my daughter returned home and reported that she had had a "kinda bad" day: several kids in her predominantly white elementary school felt the liberty to tell my biracial daughter that her hair "looked like Frankenstein" and was "freaky." Another young student suggested that she should "do something about" her hair.

A few years ago when my son was in kindergarten, a classmate commented that he looked "bald" when he came to school with a fresh haircut. To this day, my son--now a fifth grader--has strong opinions about the length of his hair when he sits in the barber's chair (it cannot be too short).

I'm debating a letter to the editor in the local newspaper, reminding parents that the ways in which they voice their opinions at home about politics, people, and the state of the world directly impacts the kind of crap that their kids dump on my kids. Whaddyu think, too strong?

Anyway. For tonight's reading time before bed, I am printing out the following excerpt of Toni Morrison's Beloved (a beautiful but troubling book) for my kids to read: that wonderful sermon by Baby Suggs in the middle of a forest clearing. Perhaps someday the affirmation of bodies of color will no longer need to be a covert act of resistance but a common celebration of humanity.

"We flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes... No more do they love the skin on your back... And O my people they do not love your hands... Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you!"

"This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you... And the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize."

(Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume Books, 1988. 88-89.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Words For Those Who Provide Care

Attend to me, O God, even as I attend to others today.
See how I am worn down
and stretched thin;
Yet I cannot quit caring,
I cannot simply step out of this role
as a care provider.
It's amazing: somehow,
even when I fall flat with fatigue
I find you in this,
in this business and these days
of watching over and worrying about
and letting my heart be broken
for another.
Be gentle with me that I might be gentle;
Ease my pain so that I have the strength to comfort;
Be near to me
as I remain present for others.
By Jesus' grace.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Gender, etc.

(fair warning: feminist diatribe ahead)


A pastor from a nearby congregation recently stopped by my church office, unplanned, unannounced, to introduce himself and talk "shop." Our church administrative assistant showed him upstairs to my office, and I stood to introduce myself: "Good morning, I'm Rachel." The visiting pastor, an older white male, noticeably did a double-take. "You're the pastor here?" No kidding. All of my feminism alarms started blaring. Aloud: "Yes, I am. Come in to my office. Please, have a seat."

We live in a world of binary partitions: On and off. Strong an
d weak. Black and white. Up and down. Left and right. Right and wrong. Bad and good. Self and other. Broken and whole. Male and female. Computers use a binary code, zero and one. Thank goodness that Noah (of biblical ark fame) taught us to count in twos!

Usually one of the two is endowed with a value of superiority. "She's really on today" implies that someone is performing her tasks well, far better than being off. White beauty is valued over Black beauty, and light complexion is more favored than dark (the notable exception being whites' obsession with tanning, an enigma in itself). We are self-focused to the point of othering without even noticing that we have done so. Good behavior is rewarded over bad---and not just criminal bad, but any "bad" that c
ontradicts or questions or challenges. And, no surprise here, male is valued over female.

Anything that doesn't fit into a neat duality is seen as problematic (because it cannot be "properly" assessed with a value). Consider the story of Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African woman and runner who has been setting records with her speed. How can she run so fast, how can she be so good? Critics suspected that she must secretly be a male, and they demanded an examination of her sexual organs. More than a strip search: a gynecological exam. It's problematic at every angle: the assumption that a woman cannot be a strong athlete without testosterone; the insistence that she "spread 'em" to satisfy critics; and the inevitable debate (if indeed the leaked results are true that Semenya is biologically a hermaphrodite) over whether she may continue to compete in women's track and whether Semenya will be "allowed" to name her own gender identity in life and in sports now that it has been splashed all over the news.

Another debate that challenges our binary assumptions (though it's been moved temporarily to the back burner while racism and fear undermine the debate over health care reform): gay marriage. Many who protest the legalization of same-gender-loving marriages insist that "marriage = man + woman," that is, marriage is defined by the gender binary. Not by love, not by commitment, but by the dichotomy of sex. And by gender roles. Detractors of gay marriage cannot imagine "husband" without "wife." Who will be the gentle nurturer? Who will be the strong bread-win
ner? Gender roles are binary, too, inside and outside of marriage...

...which brings me back to the pastor sitting across from me in my office, recovering from his surprise at the discovery of a "break" in the gender roles (in the Church of all places, that sanctuary of strict gender roles).
While he proceeded to tell me why he was visiting and what he was hoping to learn from his informal survey of area churches, I talked myself down from feminist indignation so that I could genuinely engage in the conversation. Being defensive was certainly an option in that moment...but so was going on the offensive. You know that phrase, "wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove"? Professionally, I spend a lot of time doing "dove," but I'm no stranger to "serpent." If this neighborly pastor was surprised to meet a female solo pastor, what else might surprise him? The possibilities were endless for a "teachable moment"!

Our polite conversation continued, and into my office walked Surprise #2 for my ministerial colleague: tall, lean, bubbling with energy, dark-skinned from her Kenyan father and from the summer's sun, curly hair unfettered and natural: my 7-year-old daughter. My 10-year-old son entered shortly after his sister. As I excused myself to talk with my kids, I watched my visitor out of the corner of my eye as he "did the math" in his mind. It's a familiar look to those of us with interracial families, and you can almost see the sequence of questions behind the eyes:
Oh!
Are they her children? Hm.

Do they look like her? Kinda.
But if she gave birth to them, then that means... OH!
When we're out with an African or African American friend, it's not unusual for someone to assume that my kids are part of that friend's biological family. Gentle as a dove, Rachel, gentle as a dove.

My kids returned to the Sunday School room where they'd been playing, and I decided that it was time to pull out Surprise #3. We'd been talking about churches: what works and what doesn't work, comparing programs, etc. But so far nothing had been said abou
t the formation (or continued shaping) of a church's overall identity.

"There are many ways in which Grace is like other Protestant congregations," I said in response to one of his questions. "But in this conservative region, what sets us apart isn't our programs; it's our overall identity as a socially and theologically progressive congregation."
"Really? What do you mean by 'progressive'?"
"Well, for example, we fully welcome LGBT persons in the life of the church. We have a lot of non-traditional families who find a home here. We rarely use male pronouns for God in worship, and sometimes we use female pronouns. We have members who talk about Jesus as Lord-and-Savior, and members who talk about Jesus as a prophetic but fully human teacher."
"Oh." (quick note-taking)

"Mm-hm."
"So, your church welcomes people who...maybe...don't feel comfortable in other churches?" (raised eyebrows)
"Yes we do, and that inclusive welcome is the identifying character underlying our worship, our programs, our small groups, etc."

Female pastor. Non-white kids. LGBT-affirming congregation. Non-traditional households and unfamiliar liturgies. Female pronouns for God. Teachable moments all over! It was all very civil, mind you, a totally polite conversation between two colleagues. Me, seeing how many surprises I could throw; him,
taking notes and nodding. We drew our chitchat to a close, and he asked one last question: "I see that you're not wearing a ring. Are you married?"

(Cue my daughter's voice in my mind, saying Oh no you DI-NT!)

My feminism flares went up again: he might as well have asked about my weight and age. Really, in what social setting are you supposed to ask a woman these things? We were back to square one, and I was debating my dove-serpent responses all over again. Polite honesty or polite decline? Dove-like professional refusal or serpent-like professional rebuttal? And tell me why you're still in my office, chatting like you take me seriously when I know that your denomination limits women's opportunities for fully ordained ministry?!

I have women colleagues, dear friends, who cannot get a call to ordained ministry. Correction: they already have a call to ordained ministry--God's call--
but they can't find a church willing to affirm it. Why? Because collectively we have binary vision. Because our binaries are value-laden, and poorly so. Because we still insist on strict gender roles: in church leadership, in relationships, in skills and in sports...and (apparently) in polite conversation.

So: in good, obedient, gentle female, dove-like fashion, I'll keep enjoying the opportunity to be a sly serpent whenever a "teachable moment" presents itself!

Damn the binaries, full speed ahead!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Inverting Psalm 35

I am my own worst enemy;
save me, o God.
Chase down the voice that mocks and belittles
in my mind.
Like a pack of wild dogs on the hunt,
track down that sly fox of critical self-doubt
until it is flushed from its hiding place in my soul.
In other words:
hunt me down, o God.
Take aim equally at my pride and my self-effacement.
When frustration and discouragement set a trap against
my well-being,
let the trap be sprung against them instead.
When self-care evades me like a thief in the night,
release your angels in hot pursuit of the culprit
and bring me peace.
How long will you wait, o God,
to deliver this battle into my hand?
Rescue me,
and I will proclaim your goodness, saying
"The LORD is my salvation and my wholeness,
my grace and my peace of mind."