Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Call to Confession
Sunday 10 July 2016 
Luke 10:25-37

At the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 Nelson Mandela and other leaders made a radical decision. Believing that vengeance generates only more violence and vengeance instead of seeking vengeance, tracking down, trying and imprisoning the perpetrators of torture and murder of those who fought to end apartheid, the country would engage in truth and reconciliation. Those who had murdered and tortured could come forward, confess and seek forgiveness from the families of their victims. The perpetrators would then go free. Peter Yancey tells this story: At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an 18-year old boy and burned the body, to destroy the evidence.  Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father.  The wife was forced to watch as policemen killed her husband.  The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond.  ‘What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?’ the judge asked.  She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial.  With his head down, the policeman nodded agreement.  Then she added a further request:  ‘Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give.  Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.  And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too.  I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.’  Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing Amazing Grace as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn.  He had fainted, overwhelmed.’ [This is taken pretty much verbatim from which cites Yancey’s Rumors of Another World.]
In today’s text Jesus challenges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The scholar wants to know just how far he has to go. He wants a limit. He wants to stay with what will make him comfortable. He doesn’t want to be challenged. He is, I think like many of us, looking for an easy answer. Jesus tells the story. It is easy for us to hear this story and imagine we are the Samaritan, the Good Samaritan. Isn’t reality different? Aren’t we more like the two pious religious people who cross over to the other side, who want to avoid getting involved. How often have I turned my eyes away from the mother asking for change to feed her child, the dirty man with the cardboard  sign saying “Hungry--Vietnam vet.” How often have I made excuses? How often have I ignored the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely?
The news this week has been horrific. Innocent black men gunned down by the men paid to serve and protect them. Innocent policemen protecting Black Lives Matter protesters gunned down by men seeking vengeance. Who is my neighbor? What can I do? I want the easy answers. I want to cross over to the other side of the road. I don’t want to get involved.
The Belhar Confession which some of you have studied was adopted as a confession of our denomination, a part of the constitution of our church. Belhar was a response to the apartheid of South Africa. The white controlled Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa decreed that the church should comply with the doctrine of apartheid. Coloreds and Blacks must worship in their own churches, segregated from each other and from the white churches. Belhar declares that the church must be one in unity--that it cannot be divided by race. Belhar challenges the church to stand against oppression and injustice so that justice may roll down like waters  and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. 
Saying that we must stand against oppression and injustice and actually doing it are two vastly different things. The first hard questions is where to begin. How can we even begin to think about this issue. Our new stated clerk,  The Rev. J Herbert Nelson II, has said regarding our adoption of Belhar and in reaction to the events of this week, “The assembly actions [in adopting Belhar] will have no meaning unless we as people of faith act to eradicate racism in our nation. Our efforts must begin in our own community and require courage Racism is a cancer that has historically pervaded our society. It blatantly disrupts the flow of building Jesus’ call for the Beloved Community.” []
The Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, our newly elected co-moderator posted a suggestion for our response on Facebook: “For those of you who ask ‘How long?’ or ‘How many times must this happen?’ I'll tell you precisely when it will stop. It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness/white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color). To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness. As necessary as this is for the well-being of society, it is also an uncomfortable undertaking and there is literally nothing forcing white people to do it. White people, then, will likely have to create the force.” She continues: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don't talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. . . . It’s confession time.”
It’s confession time. My first reaction is that I have nothing to confess. But the reality is different. I don’t want to examine my reality because deep down I know, even after all these years, there is something within me that says I am better because I am white. Rationally, I know this is not true, but my gut tells me it is.
It is also important to think about white privilege (and easier for me than my own racism). We whites are like fish in the ocean, we are unaware of the water we swim in, the water of our privilege. I grew up in the South. My family owned slaves. A couple of years ago I visited Latta Plantation near the church my family attended in the 18th and 19th centuries. I noticed a plaque near the granite steps. The steps were cut by a stone mason owned by James Latta. The slave cut stone for many of the 18th century buildings in Charlotte. Latta profited from the work of his slave. On a visit to a plantation in Louisiana, the docent said that in the years before the Civil War, 80% of the millionaires in the US lived along the Mississippi. They, too profited from the work of slaves. My family profited from the work of their slaves. Northerners profited too from slaves, their own slaves and from the slave trade. The South and our country as a whole has never had a conversation thinking about the wealth created for whites by slave labor or the wealth denied those slaves or confessing the evil of owning human beings as slaves.
White privilege. I could go to any college I wanted to. The first African American was admitted to my college the year before I enrolled. I can live any where I wanted to. My house was not fire bombed because I wanted to live in the Shaker School District. No one suggested to me that I might want to file a lawsuit to make sure that housing covenants restricting sales to whites would not be enforced against me as was suggested to Dr. Winston Richie when he decided to buy a house in eastern Shaker Heights. I have never been stopped by the police as I slowly rolled down a street on a dark winter night, trying to find the house number of the house where I was to go to a meeting as was former County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones. My life expectancy is longer than that for Black or Hispanic women simply because I am white. I have never had to tell my son he shouldn’t flirt with or  even look at certain women. I have never worried that my son would be killed. I have never been awakened in the middle of the night and told that my son had been gunned down while he was walking down the street in his hoodie. White privilege is a fact. 
I don’t ask the whites among us to examine your lives for white privilege so you will feel guilty. There is no more guilt about white privilege than there is about the privilege that comes with being over 6 feet tall. It is simply a fact. I do ask you to recognize what being white has done for you and to imagine how your life might have been different had you been born into a poor African American family. 

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. That neighbor includes the families of the men killed this week--all of them. That neighbor includes the men who killed this week. That neighbor includes the one sitting in this church who disagrees with you. That may be the most uncomfortable of all. We don’t like conflict in the church. We have seen what conflict does to churches. If we begin with our own confession, with our own fears and misgivings, we may be amazed by grace just as was van der Broek. Amen

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Cancer stories

Cancer narratives have two arcs: the person whose cancer has been treated and is highly unlikely to recur and the person with terminal cancer. The stories like many stories have predictable narrative lines. For the person who has been "cured" the narrative is one of courage. That person has fought the disease and has "won". She has been courageous. We admire his valor and perseverance in the face of this disease. She is a survivor. The other narrative is one of inspiration. The person who is dying inspires us with her wisdom, his acceptance, her equanimity in the face of death. He has wonderful insights into life and living. We feel so good that in the face of death she can continue to be sweet and loving.

Those narratives while in some cases have some truth they do not tell the whole story. I cannot tell the reality of those for whom cancer is a death sentence in the foreseeable future, but I can tell what I see. And I can certainly tell a different story for one whose cancer has been "cured".

Someone (or perhaps several someones) referred to me as courageous. I certainly was not courageous. Numb might be a better descriptor. I had a diagnosis of cancer. This is what I needed to do. This is what I have to do today. This is what I do today. It is what is in front of me. I really am not making a choice. I spent the first month in denial. A perfectly acceptable place to be for a while (though a friend kept telling me I was in denial to which I responded, yes, I know). Then a bit of grief. But mostly anger. Anger at the doctors who ignored and belittled me, who did not take me seriously.  I remain pissed to this day at the doctors. Anger at God for giving me cancer when no one in my family had cancer.

I cannot speak personally for what it is like to know that the cancer is going to kill you sooner than you imagined that you would die. I do know that all is not acceptance, lightness and sweetness. From people I have known there is disappointment, grief, anger. There are days when it is just not good. There are days of railing against God, the universe, the doctors. There are days of weeping for knowing that this life will end. And for some (many?) the end brings pain that even morphine can't relieve. There is suffering, pain, humiliation, loss of dignity.

When we assume, no require, that those with cancer will be inspirations to us, we burden them. We add to their suffering. They cannot share their real feelings. Their misgivings. Their fears. Their pain. Their anger. In addition to physical and psychic pain, we add the pain of isolation. We who cannot face our own mortality ask those who actively are to provide us with solace. We should be providing them with solace.

When we tell those with cancer that attitude makes a difference, we burden them. When we tell them that acceptance is important, we burden them. When we refuse to listen to their pain, their anger, their fear, we burden them.

For those who are the ones who face the end beaming with joy or at least acceptance in every moment of their journey through cancer, I am delighted. I am not you. I believe that there are others like me in this respect.  All I ask is that I be allowed to wallow in my pain if I need to. That I be allowed my anger if I need it. That you listen to my fear and not tell me everything will be all right. It won't be. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Long, Loving Look at the Real

My first spiritual director talked about contemplation as “a long, loving look at the real.” It’s a quotation from the Jesuit Walter Burghardt. It has taken me years to begin to unpack its meaning. 

It is in scuba diving that I am truly able to take long loving looks at the real. The picture above is of two nudibranchs, about 3/4s of an inch long. Nudies, as they are fondly referred to, are gastropod mollusks: snails and slugs. These are animals that on terra firma I tend to turn up my nose in disgust, particularly those slugs. Underwater, that’s another story.
Nudies have an interesting body: their gills are outside their bodies. That lovely tangle of tentacles waving in the surge are really the animal’s gills. 

Divers I have found are like people on the earth. Most fin their feet as fast as possible to see the next big thing. The bigger, the better. A hammerhead! A school of thousands of silverly jack circling to protect themselves from the white tip reef shark lying in wait for its next meal.! A turtle swimming to the surface for a gulp of air! These are indeed fantastical sights not to be missed. But, in grasping for the huge, divers miss the miraculous tiny. 

Nudibranchs are not common. One of their defenses against being eaten is to blend into to the surrounding colorful coral. And they are tiny, rarely larger than an inch in length. Seeing them takes slow swimming, drifting along as slowly as the current will allow, moving as little as possible. 

Surprisingly they move. They may raise their heads, the end with the two feelers and stretch their bodies along the surface of the coral head. They have a rear foot which extends, though I’ve never seen exactly how that moves. The frill around their body can flare up and down, to what end mystifies me. 

In a cubic meter of coral reef, there is more life and more diversity of life than anywhere else on earth. Microscopic plankton feed the animals, algae inhabit the coral, producing food for the coral and giving it color. Soft corals sway in the current, imitating the plants they are not. Tiny fish dart exhibiting odd behaviors. And of course larger and larger fish swim and eat in that one cubic meter. 

All this wonder escapes the diver when she is interested only in the next big thing. Wonder appears when we slow down, breath as easily as possible, hang in the water suspended, and open our eyes to what is in front of us.

On earth as it is in the water.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reflections on The Fault in Our Stars (the movie)

I haven’t read the book, though I have owned it since it was first published. I wound up at the movie, not because I wanted to see it but because a friend wanted to see it and asked me to go with her. After I bought my ticket, I told her I had a lot of trepedation about seeing it. She responded that she hadn’t thought about that. The great unspoken that. CANCER.

Gus, the boyfriend Hazel meets at a recovery group meeting, Gus who lost a leg to cancer, but has an 85% chance of being cancer free, relapses at the end of the movie and dies. Gus, the one who wanted to make his mark on the world, to be remembered. Gus dies before he is 20. 

For me, Gus is the reminder of the randomness of cancer. That is the awfulness of cancer. It is totally random. People who have never smoked die of lung cancer (the least funded of the cancers because people assume if you have lung cancer, it’s your fault). People who do all the right things die of ovarian cancer. Even the wealthy, smart can’t escape--Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer. 

For me, cancer was random. I was in great health. I wasn’t concerned about cancer because there was none in my family, except “old age cancers”--those that hit because well something has to kill you. No, I knew that heart disease was a much greater risk for women than cancer. So, I was eating a healthy diet. I had started running. I felt great. Until I didn’t. 

I struggled with randomness. I learned that life is fragile. All life. Mine. Yours. Life is uncertain. It’s not the way most people live though. I read how you can reduce your chances of getting cancer by doing, well, all the things I was doing when I was diagnosed. 

Cancer told me that nothing is in my control. Life can be taken away without warning. 

But, few who haven’t had cancer or some other devastating random loss believe this. I watch them do, as I used to do, justify why it always happens to the other person. I watch them go through life as if it is infinite, wasting time, ignoring friends, family, spouses for work. 

And I struggle with the ease of not living each moment, with wasting time on meaningless stuff. I want to experience each moment of my “one wild and precious life” but it is so easy to choose death in life: trashy TV and novels, computer games, eating to dull the pain of loneliness. 

“...That we but mortals be.” The truth so hard to grasp, to live into. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"And there was no one in need among them."

As I walked to church this morning, I saw him outside the doughnut store, sitting, reading, studying in fact, papers crammed with cramped writing. He looked as if he were studying for an exam. The unusual thing was he was perched on a shopping cart. I could see a clean duffel bag stuffed with what I assumed were his belongings. He leaned his back agains it, reclining a bit atop his shopping card.

Like the Pharisee and the Rabbi in the parable we call the Good Samaritan, I hurried past him. As I continued my walk, I thought of the report I had heard on NRP. People walked right by their husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and even children, not recognizing them because they were dressed as homeless people. I thought too of the time when I had preached at this church at the service preceding the meal prepared and served for the homeless, actually anyone who wanted to eat. Several of us had talked about the fact that almost no one from the congregation joined in eating the meal. And so after the service, I joined those eating. I sat at the table as a young woman served me. I remembered my surprise at being treated as if I were homeless. I remember my guilt as I thought about this. “Wait a minute,” I wanted to scream, “I am not one of them. I am important. I matter.” I was shocked at how much I wanted to distance myself from the others at my table.
Today, I sat through the sermon, listening as the preacher talked of the account of the early church in Acts: how the people worshiped together daily, shared a meal and shared what they had so that there was no one in need among them. I knew if the man was still there at the doughnut shop, I would have to stop and talk with him. I prayed he would have moved on by the time the service was over. 

I walked out the side door and around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t see him, but he was still there, hidden behind a car. I stopped and asked if he would tell me his story. I had not idea how to begin a conversation and had come up this this lame request. He said he’d be glad to if I had the time. He put his glazed yeast doughnut back in the paper bag and nestled it next to his coffee. 

He was fairly well dressed in a red polo shirt and slacks. He work a jacket even though the temperature was climbing into the 80s. I noticed one of the lenses was missing from his glasses. 

He had, he said, been transferred to Memphis by the IRS. He had no family here. And then Dr. King was assassinated. I didn’t quite follow the story but it seemed he was following leads to the assassin, leads that led to Klansmen with political connections. He had gotten caught up in a conspiracy and a government cover-up. The government owed him money that he never received. He traveled to Chicago where he had friends who would not take him in. He had been injured but the VA refused to treat him. I listened for about half an hour, wondering what I could possibly to do help him, and coming up with absolutely nothing. By his language and demeanor he could have been a lawyer or an IRS agent. There was enough of what I think is reality in what he said, but also a bit of unreality, at least what I think of as unreality.

I have no idea how to help this man, or any other homeless person. It is easy to say it’s a systemic issue and it is. It is also easy to say that you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it. But you can, or rather, we can. In the 1960s (if I recall the timing correctly) poverty rates among the elderly were appalling. Social security benefits were raised and stories of grandmothers and grandfathers eating cat food for dinner have disappeared.

“And there was no one in need among them.” The early church lived out an ethic of taking care of each other, not just visiting the sick, but making sure everyone had something to eat, a place to sleep. We have lost that. I am as guilty as everyone else of wanting to make sure I have enough, and not just enough but more so that I can do what I want to do.

As I had not solutions for the homeless man, I have no solution for either homelessness or our idea that resources are scarce and we must protect what we have. I only know that this is not God’s vision for the world.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Liminal Space

When a person stands at a threshold, a doorway, she has a choice: she can enter the house or turn her back and walk away. She can join the party or go home. When we stand at a threshold of a stage in our lives, we have no choice--we much enter the next stage. Oh, there are always the exceptions--the 50 year old matron plays the adolescent flirt; the 45 year old man who buys the red Porsche Carrera. But for most of us, willing or not, pass through those thresholds, moving from baby, to toddler, to student to teenager and to adulthood.

At the Meeman Center the other night, the group assembled discussed Place Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. The professor leading the group reiterated the setting of the novel in liminal space: in the family at the center of the story, two sons and two daughters were moving to adulthood. Egypt, the setting for the novel was itself in liminal space: on the verge of independence. It is a coming of age story for the young people and for the country.

The professor had invited four Rhodes seniors who had studied the book with him this semester to attend and share their insights and perspectives on the novel. These students were in liminal space: in 26 days they would graduate from Rhodes. The professor emphasized their place on this threshold.

I looked around the table at the participants. We, too, were in liminal space. We are all on the verge of old age.

Few write of this liminal space, this coming of age, of old age. It is ignored, just as the old in our culture are ignored. We celebrate youth and energy. We ignore the wisdom and creativity that comes with age and the time to reflect and explore.

The liminal space between adolesence and adulthood is open, wide, bright, full of possibilities. The liminal space at the other end of adulthood, that between robust adulthood and old age is closed, narrow, dark with diminishing possiblities. 

Old ages is a time of loss--of health, of firends, of ability, of agility, of mind and finally of life itself.
I stand at that threshold. I cannot turn away, say “No, this is a door I choose not to enter.” I do not have a choice. The door is there and I must enter.

I want to be able to choose, to embrace what life remains: to embrace change, to embrace creativity, to embrace beauty. I do not want to become like so many old women I know. These bitter women full of resentment, anger. These women who impede change. I do not want to cling to a past that no longer exists, that is no longer possible.

I want finally to go with joy through the final threshold, into that good night.

April 15, 2014

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Incarnation: Taste and See that the Lord is Good

A group I meet with periodically decided that we should reflect on embodiment as each of us had talked of embodiment that day. As I was thinking about what I would write, three experiences came immediately to mind. And so, here are my reflections on the incarnation and eating.

After I came home from the meeting this blog post was on my feed:
It's a reflection on the physical health of ministers and how we may care for our spiritual and emotional aspects, but not our physical aspects.

Dualism in the form of separation of mind/spirit and body has long troubled me. It comes from Greek influences on the early Christian church and not Hebrew. I was delighted to learn, as I studied the Hebrew scriptures and the Hebrew language in seminary, that there is no such separation in that early tradition. The Hebrew term "nephesh" or "nepesh" is sometimes translated "soul" but its meaning is more than that. It is the essence of the living creature. There is an earthiness, a sensuality in the Hebrew texts that we Christians have somehow lost. The ancient Hebrews saw the wholeness of humans, not separation.

But, I learned (and I doubt that my experience is very different from most protestant Christians) that whatever was sensual (meaning bringing pleasure to the senses) was wrong, corrupt, vile. As a constant dieter most of my life, food is not something to be sought to bring pleasure. It is something to deny myself. That moist, chocolately cake with the squishy center and the fragrant chocolate buttery icing is to be avoided, not enjoyed. It will suddenly appear on my hips (and at my age now on my abdomen which presages diabetes). A meal is to be gobbled down while working or surfing the web. It is fuel for the body and the mind.

I have been unlearning this lesson, gradually over the last few years. I first noticed that when I travel, almost where ever I travel, food tastes so much better than in the US. Sitting in a tiny restaurant near the train station in a small town in far western China, I watched as they brought in vegetables from the farmers who were selling them in front of the train station. In a few minutes, our meal appeared with those vegetables. One of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. In the Mekong of Vietnam, we stopped to eat at the place the drivers stayed as their tourist clients boated along the river. The red snapper was fresh from the river, fried to perfection. We ate it with fish sauce and fresh greens. In central Asia, yellow melons burst with sweetness unknown in most grocery store melons here.

I began to avoid processed foods and to cook more for myself. In a short time, I found that I could no longer eat many bakery items that I had before loved. The taste of chemicals overpowered the sweetness that was there. I discovered that in season, if I searched diligently, I could find vegetables as flavorful as those Chinese vegetables. I found that I could from time to time find chicken that tasted like chicken. The deep and complex flavors of fresh food was there, hidden, but sometimes available.

And so now it is August. Nothing  tastes better to me than an heirloom tomato from the farmers' markets, with fresh basil and cottage cheese. Finding the right tomato still remains important. Those uniformly red, uniformly round (with slightly flattened sides for ease of packing in boxes), uniformly sized tomatoes must be avoided. I search for the misshapened ones. I turn them over, looking at the stem to make sure green appears. I pick it up, making sure it's just the right degree of softness. I smell it, catching the scent of tomatoness. Home again, I cut my treasure into bite sized pieces. I find the aromatic basil (can any perfume smell sweeter) and tear the leaves. I put in some cottage cheese. I savor each bite of the tomato: the fruity, slightly acid, sweet taste that for decades I had missed. The juice dribbles down my chin. The basil adds chewiness and an almost but not quite bitter complexity. The cottage cheese in its blandness spreads the tomato-basil taste throughout.

The Psalmist writes: taste and see that the Lord is good. What is more delightful than the perfect August tomato? Who can bite into one and doubt that creation is good?