Not Sagging but Supporting

As I come to my half-century+1 birthday this week, I find myself both amused and troubled by the proposed No-Sagging ordinance in the city of St. Louis.  No fashion style is more confusing to me than what is popularly called “sagging” and no initiative more counter-productive than banning it.  As a woman old enough to remember the scandal of boys with long hair, I need to weigh in on the ridiculousness of the proposed ordinance.

I’ll skip the commentary about the embedded racism of the ordinance; it’s a question asked and answered and those who have ears have already heard.  Choosing to ban a fashion that is worn by one particular subset of our culture and then claiming that it isn’t a reflection of our attitude about that subset is absurd, but I’ll let someone else take up that argument.

And I want to be clear that my support of ‘sagging’ (or rather my opposition to banning it) is not a vote for male exposure.  I’d be the first to admit that lewdness makes me queasy, but that’s not what we’re talking about with an anti-sagging ordinance.  When the “style” morphs into exposure as it unfortunately can, there are plenty of ordinances about indecency that can be called in to assist. We have plenty of rules and laws to enforce the coverage of private parts (ask Janet Jackson about “wardrobe malfunctions”).

As I ponder Jackson’s unfortunate encounter with America’s bizarre and conflicting standards regarding fashion, it strikes me that banning “sagging” is akin to banning “bikini straps”.  Like bikini straps, sagging is a style whose domain are svelte young bodies that most of us will never again know.  Quite frankly, sagging isn’t a fashion that is in danger of catching the rest of us.  Trust me.  Although youthful bodies sport skimpy swimsuits and sagging pants, those of us with the markers of time will continue to opt for the coverage available from the likes of LL Bean rather than the more revealing fare offered at Old Navy.

As a casual observer, I have a confession: I have begun to develop an appreciation of the fashion. Before you judge me, hear me out.  First of all, there is remarkable creativity and color in the boxer department.  The quilter in me can’t help but appreciate the array of cotton colors.  But even more intriguing than the fabrics is the grace exhibited when walking with a belt around your thighs.  If we all had to try it before we threw stones, the pile would never empty.  In terms of giving credit where due, let’s face it – credit is due here.

But what if we simply don’t like the fashion?  Say it offends our sense of style and/or taste?  If disdain is a reason to criminalize fashion, I’m going to add gingham and eyelet to the list.  I wore too much of it in my early years, trying to be something I’m not. It’s taken literally decades of Goldilocks style trial and error to find fashion forms that fit both my body and my spirit.  Which is really the point.  This is a fad that our youth are trying on as they explore who they are and what feels good on their bodies.  I highly doubt this is a fashion that they’ll still be sporting when they’re 50!

What I do know about teens is that the more the elders’ rail, the more the teens push back.  The more we try to outlaw a behavior, the more tempting it becomes.  If we really don’t want our teens to sag, we’ll buy them lots of colorful boxers and baggy pants.  Or better yet, the braver among us could try sporting the fashion to show our support.  With our embodied support (especially when our bodies sag as deeply as our pants), the fashion will lose its luster in short order.

In the meantime, lets empower our civil servants to work on the issues that really matter…  some of the many issues include local control of our quality water, expanded recycling and composting programs, and cutting edge technology in our schools.   Focused on what we do want, we’ll be offering less enticement for what we don’t.

Oxymoron: Quiet Easter

It’s official: Easter came and went without my help.

Most signficant for me was that I witnessed the coming and going without benefit of all the traditions that I’ve practiced believing are essential. My practice began early in ministry, when I was still an Associate and a seasoned (incredibly talented) church organist remarked that it wasn’t Easter until the organ peeled with the sounds of Ju­das Mac­ca­bae­us, the tune for the Easter hymn, “Thine is the Glory”. I believed the musician about Easter they way I believe Jesus about God and in every Easter service that I planned, 23 of them to be exact, we sang the hymn with gusto.

At some point, of course, the traditional language and imagery became problematic. Our New Century Hymnal did help in replacing some of the language but the imagery was still very, well, ominpotent. A half dozen years ago, at the urging of another musician, I penned a new verse for the ancient hymn and for many years I experienced Easter’s promise as the traditional tune met with contemporary words to deliver new hope.  (find lyrics here)

But I sang no songs this Easter and heard no organ tones. There was no brass band and no Easter bunny.

I am both empty nesting for the first time and simultaneously now retired from professional ministry.  In the normally fitful days leading up to the feast, now quiet, I practiced listening to the emotions that did and did not fill my soul. I missed my community, I missed the familiar, I missed my children. But I did not miss the rush, I did not miss the work of pageant creation, I did not miss the pressure to perform. And as the day itself came and went, I listened closely for my heart song. Again I heard wistfulness with memories of relationships that have shifted and moved. Importantly though, I realized that I had completely forgotten about Ju­das Mac­ca­bae­us until this morning after. As I bore witness to Easter’s coming and going, I had no awareness of the presence (or in this case absense) of the music.

Intentionally we spent our Easter morning with the Quakers (Society of Friends). We joined the early bunch for a simple potluck breakfast (sans decorations) and began to experience the slow dawning of relationships. The morning closed with the children (and teens and adults) sharing the most non competitive Easter Egg hunt that I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve seen more than a few!); after each egg discovered there was a pause for wonder and celebration with no urgency to proceed (really).  Worship, the heart of the morning, was as always simple and silent. There were a couple of shares in the midst of the quiet hour, each memorable and worthy as they emerged from the silence and moved back again. Most profoundly, in the quiet I noticed the clouds clear and the sun burst forth, I caught a shard of truth that I need in my journey to let go and move on, and I felt the warmth of a welcoming smile from a person who sat nearby. I experienced the miracle of new life, new birth, new hope… Easter.

At days end, I was reminded of Dr. Seuss’ timeless wisdom placed in the mouth of the Grinch. The Grinch was speaking of Christmas, but the truth applies to all holidays worthy of attention: “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” Like Christmas, Easter is about something more than our human manifestations, about even more than the words and stories that we attach to it.

To be sure, I am grateful for the many Easter experiences that I’ve been privileged to share including the ones with carefully crafted liturgy and mighty chorales. But when all was said and done, as we cuddled into our home after the festivities (or their lack), we discovered our quiet empty-nest Easter had only one missing piece: chocolate.  And this was a lapse quickly remedied with a trip to Walgreens.  (It might also have been remedied had we humbled ourselves to hunt for eggs, but the contents of the eggs was uncertain and we were still rather shy.)

As I ponder the oxymoron of a quiet Easter in the morning afterglow, I discover that it works more purposefully than I might have imagined possible.  As I cherish this unlikely oxymoron, in lieu of the traditional Easter phrases about death and resurrection, I offer a more ancient and simple greeting: L’chaim! (To life!)

(Note: The images on this page come from several sites but all are the incredible art of New Zealand painter Ira Mitchell. You can see more and purchase here work @ http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/ira-mitchellkirk.html.)

Oxymoron: Good Friday

For decades now I struggled with the name ascribed to the day in remembrance of Jesus’ death: Good Friday. In churches where I served, I carefully pushed against the tide calling the day “Holy Friday” or “God’s Friday”, anything but “Good” Friday because, quite frankly, it is not a good day and not a good story.

The story told on this day is gruesome and tragic. It is a story all to common, then and now, as innocents are made to suffer and die for no sin of their own. And it is not good.

The etymology is uncertain and some would claim that originally the day was called God’s Friday. Maybe so.  The more common explanation for the title is that Jesus’ suffering and death, though in itself tragic and sad, was necessary for the greater good of our salvation. Inasmuch as one accepts the common doctrine of sacrificial atonement, the day is (say it’s proponents) appropriately titled.

Most progressive and critically aware Christians today, however, reject the notion of substitutionary atonement on multiple grounds. For one thing we can’t square a compassionate life force with a demand for blood sacrifice. History’s way is watered with the blood of innocents shed in the name of Jesus; while anecdotal, the evidence is painfully clear that a violent God-character girds a violent peoples.

James Byrd, Jr.

We choose to believe that what is holy and sacred is not violent and (more importantly) does not seek or condone our violence. Which brings us to the corollary of why the doctrine of sacrificial atonement is fundamentally flawed – even were the source of life to need such sacrifice, such an offering is not something that is done for you. When we begin to seek other’s to share the most heinous burdens of life, the results are never good.

Certainly the concept of substitutionary atonement is relevant this week as so-called Christians enjoying their heterosexual marriages are prayerfully asking the Supreme Court to protect the sanctity (and privilege) of their marriages by denying the same to gay and lesbian couples.  The logic is that in order to protect the majority experience, it is justifiable that a minority suffer.  An uncritical acceptance of substitutionary atonement fails us not only as it propagates a fabricated need for atonement but worse, the concept that your suffering is necessary to alleviate mine.  This concept leads to scapegoats, not freedom and certainly not justice.  Would that Christians move beyond asking others to suffer for their beliefs.

Archbishop Oscar Romero

To be sure, the earliest followers of Jesus told stories of his suffering and death, this is not in question. Also true is that these stories bolstered the early followers as they too faced brutal circumstances. The value of these stories has been tried in times of persecution and found valuable. The problem is that these same stories, donned by the oppressor rather than the oppressed, become at best a macabre charade and at worst (as history attests) open the floodgates to tyranny. The infamous Passion Plays even now incite violence against Jewish communities and Mel Gibson’s bloody rendering, “The Passion of Christ”, offers no balm to the violence that continues in God’s name. A quick survey of Western history yields countless examples of the crucifixion story propagating violence but for those seeking a more careful critique, James Carroll obliges with his work, “Constantine’s Sword“.

The more ancient texts that informed Jesus’ life and teachings remind us not only that those who live by the sword also die by it (2 Samuel 2), but also that the sins of the father’s will be visited upon the sons (Exodus 34). There is nothing good about the story that will be shared on this upcoming Friday, and calling it so only elongates the suffering of those weighed down. More relevant for our time is the story that our Jewish brothers and sisters share this week, the story shared by the one we remember this week, a story also buried in this week we would call holy. The Passover story celebrates liberation, freedom, justice; it is a celebration worthy of our children. Following Jesus needn’t mean a recreation of his torture. Following Jesus, taking seriously his life and teachings, might more appropriately leads us to Seder tables this week where we bear witness to freedom and recommit ourselves to justice.

Considering the choices that are ours as we move through the theological minefield of colonial Christianity, it strikes me that the one good thing about Good Friday is the information the label provides. The dissonance of the label invites us to pause and make conscious choices about the stories we share with our children. There is nothing good about this tragic story nor the catastrophic consequences meted out over the millennia. Holy, yes. Belonging to God, yes.  But good?  No.

For those who take Jesus’ life and teachings to heart, Good Friday is an oxymoron that is simply not acceptable.

oxymoron: righteous anger

Midway through the week that followed my church leave-taking, I had an encounter with my former life which invoked righteous anger.  While the word for the emotion could be replaced with indignation, hurt or rage, the adjective was certain.  Make no mistake, I was the innocent in an unprovoked hurt.

Pouring good karma after bad, I lost 72 hours of my life that I will never get back.

For a couple of days I dedicated myself to measured and appropriate responses to rectify the identified injustice.  These efforts produced little fruit and much anxiety. While I was painstaking in my effort to use “sober adult” words, the endeavor was a fool’s errand. I am reminded of the good seed sown on the thorny ground which quickly thrives only to be strangled in the bramble.

Yet with the gift of hindsight, I find myself aware that seed might not have contained the rose that I desired.

As I sit in the brambles of my foray into righteous anger, I am reminded of a bit of advice in AA’s “12 Steps and 12 Traditions”, a bit of advice so stunningly countercultural that the dissonance alone is riveting.  “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.  If somebody hurts us and we are sore, we are in the wrong also.  But are there no exceptions to this rule?  What about “justifiable” anger?  If somebody cheats us, aren’t we entitled to be mad?  Can’t we be properly angry with self-righteous folk?  For us of A.A. these are dangerous exceptions.  We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.” (12and12I vividly remembering my first hearing of this text and my utter disbelief.  To live life without alcohol is one thing, to live without justifiable anger is quite another.

The spiritual axiom assures us that if we tend the internal trouble that is our own, we can live in peaceful challenge with whatever the external world brings to bear.  As I rail with a current chapter of tantalizing drama, the axiom is beckons.  What is troubling my spirit that I am responding with such internal vitriol? Lest I thwart the invitation to self-reflection with a justification of my hurt, I turn again to the teachings of Etty Hillesum.  The incredible poetry of this mystic in time of great trial bears witness to the efficacy of the axiom.

“If there is ever to be peace, it won’t be authentic until each individual achieves peace within him/herself, expels all feelings of hatred and change it into something else, maybe even into love — or is that asking too much? It is the only solution.” ~ Etty Hillesum (http://www.maritspaperworld.com/)

Hillesum was a Jewish woman who was also a Christian-inspired mystic, coming of age in Amsterdam in the nightmare of the Holocaust. Acquainted with sorrow and looking evil full on, Etty’s journals bear witness to her choice to love. From the deportation camp at Westerbork she writes, “Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.” (gratefulness.org) Reflecting on the evil incarnate all around her, she lamented God’s inability to intervene and concluded, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” (Brainy Quote) Hillesum was not naive to the suffering nor to her fate, she was not immune to the pain around her.  But she recognized that she had a choice each moment of each day to embrace that which is worthy, that which beautiful, that which is blessed.  And with her dying breath, she chose love.

Thinking about Hillesum, I realize that whatever trial I may face this day, it is comparatively trivial.  Considering her extraordinary embodied compassion, I realize that I too have a choice. Admittedly the feelings of anger and angst are a part of my being, but I can honor the feelings without perpetuating the hurt. The apparent choice between denial and rage is a false dichotomy.  Spiritual giants from across time and space invite us to consider a third choice, love. Love honors the hurt by investing in its alternative.

I will never get the hours back that I wasted pursuing my anger, but I can choose now to focus on the beauty of today.  I can be grateful for the lessons learned in the encounter and honor the pain by allowing it to water worthier seeds.  

For today, I choose to water seeds of compassion.

 

Please note:  The images in this blog come from a fabulous artist named Marit Barentsen.  You can read her blog, enjoy (and buy!) her art at: http://www.maritspaperworld.com/

Swan Song – a closing sermon

1. Swan Song

A swansong is the exquisite burst of music at the close of a silent life, at least according to ancient legends about the swan. So it is with amusement that after a lifetime of making words come together for worship, I come to you having just spent a month in silent worship with the Quakers, now re-entering worship words to share a “swansong”. Words for a minister are perhaps like drinks for an alcoholic, one is too many and a thousand is not nearly enough.

2. Veneration of Knowledge

As I ponder the invitation to share a bit of parting wisdom, it seems oddly appropriate that the text and theme for the day, chosen before the significance was known is “knowledge”.

The topic is appropriate for Peace UCC in Webster Groves MO because we are a community that lauds, perhaps even venerates, knowledge. We pride ourselves with our good public schools in WG, with the intellectual influences not only of Eden Seminary but Webster University and even the proximity with intellectual giants like Washington University and St. Louis University. Too we are proud that both in our zip code and even in our worshipping community we have an inordinate number of members with advanced degrees. We call ourselves an “educated congregation”. And it is very good.

Yet as I sat with this familiar text and teaching this week, I’ve been struck by the difference between knowledge (noun) and knowing (verb) and with my own particular challenge: the more I ‘know’, the less knowledge I have. In my own life I have discovered a consistent and inverse relationship between the two. Most significantly, the more that I’ve come to “know” the sacred, the more certain I am that God is not an external diety to be described but an internal presence to be experienced.

Which, of course, has been an occupational hazard… but let me back up to the beginning.

3. Relevant Heresies

Once upon a time when I was a child in Sunday School, I was invited to share both “knowing” and knowledge. Our Sunday School books were filled with knowledge (wondrous bible stories of intrigue and scandal) and traditional “born again” theology. But our books also offered a rather peculiar teaching in a story about a dude named George Fox. Fox taught about something called the “inner light”, that within each of us is a spark of the sacred, the very presence of God. Original sin or divine spark, which is at the core of our being?

The question was answered definitively when I went to a Christian college and learned about the Gnostic heretics who (we were taught) were an early but mortal threat to the very survival of Christianity, a heretical group who believed in a crazy idea that within all humans there is a … divine spark, the very presence of God.

Admittedly I was skeptical and was delighted in seminary to learn more about these heretics, connecting the dots with the Quakers, and being assured that heretics, though perhaps shunned in their day, were not always the bad guys. My history professor in seminary even encouraged us to study church history from the margins. As we read the theologians who’ve been labeled and set aside we discover that though an institutional religion has consistently affirmed sets of knowledge, there have always been spiritual teachers who’ve embraced a way of being, of knowing, that was outside of and/or at odds with the institution.

Heresy aside, knowing trumps knowledge.

4. Thomas 70

One of the parallel readings this morning was from Thomas’ gospel, an important example of a book that had been labeled as heresy and subsequently lost for many years. The particular verse that we heard this morning has been incredibly shaping in my life for more than a decade and one that speaks to the power of knowing. Elaine Pagels translates the verse this way: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

What we need for this day, all that we need, is as close as our next breath. If we bring it forth, we will find what we need, our salvation or safe-keeping. This teaching, of course, brings me full circle to the inner light of my childhood and the legends of the heretics. It is Marianne Williamson’s “who are you not to shine?” and the spiritual truth that we sing each January Sunday, “this little light of mine”. Found but not contained in our Christian story, this truth dances across continents and generations with a range of expressions and religious names.

The text has some critics, mostly for the second half or the corollary. If we hid our light, it will destroy us. Although I’m pretty much over with the binary categories, the painful truth of life is that a dream deferred not only dies in our closet but sets decay at the very core of our being. Inasmuch as we are gifted with an inner light, that light must be fed; as the light seeks nourishment, if we keep it locked inside it will eat us from the inside out.

So here is the conundrum of life:
If we embrace the truth that is ours, we will soar to new heights.
If we deny our truth, we will be torn asunder.

5. A Bellwether Moment

I had a moment of truth some years ago now when I was working on a bulletin, typing the word “Christ” in a community prayer. As my fingers formed the familiar word a question emerged from within, unbidden. Is that the most helpful word to use in that spot? A silly question for “Christ” is of course a common word for divinity within a Christian community, so why the question? I stopped typing and began to reflect. At the time (and now) there were many hyphenated families in our community: Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Wiccan, Agnostic-Christian, Jewish-Christian. Then, as now, folk familiar and comfortable with religious tradition and language sat in pews beside others smarting from “Christian-eze” and still others unfamiliar with religious language. As I considered the necessity of a particular word in a particular prayer, the answer was “of course not”. As I let go of my assumptions about the need to use the word “Christ” and tried more inclusive options like Spirit and Holy One, I realized that our doors of welcome opened wider.

And as the doors opened wider, we discovered that the windows opened too. As my own faith became increasingly light in words and deep in faith, you joined with me on the journey. Together we have wondered about the words we use at the table, what our ministers wear and where they stand, and more. The beauty is that as we become less attached to doctrine, creeds, and even liturgical traditions, we have (unintentionally but very clearly) become increasingly more inclusive. It has been an amazing and wondrous journey, filled with hope and promise.

But also at points an unsettling one. If not in the creeds and traditions and texts, then what can we trust? What is the solid rock? On what can we raise our Ebenezer? When we pull on the dangling thread of the sweater, we fear we will soon find ourselves naked.

Admittedly I stand here pretty naked today. At some point I realized a painful inescapable truth: I absolutely believe Jesus about God, I simply don’t believe the church about Jesus. In very real ways, I realize that I have prayed my way out of the church. I wonder if I am a “none” (one of the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”) and as I step outside of the comfort of our community I won’t pretend that the way hasn’t been watered with tears.

I share this story because, directly and indirectly, the theology that we’ve shared has brought us to this fork in the road and presents important questions for you as a community moving forward. I share my experience because I continue to believe that there is a felt need to gather in communities like this one in which we’ve dared to practice a “spiritual but not religious” expression and the temptation will be to reach backward for familiar traditions. Please don’t, at least not without prayerful consideration.

Since I was ordained, our denomination has shrunk by more than half. Churches all around us, even ones with good music and good preaching, are in decline and many are closing. This beloved community has been steady and at points truly brilliant in these same recent years – not in spite of but in fact because we’ve dared to flow with the current and lose our grip the trappings of “religion”. Inasmuch as we have been willing to explore the edges of progressive religious expression, we have found new life, new relevance and new growth. This is a season to stretch the welcome, to be bold and daring, to paint with purple and bring in drums into worship.

The light shines from within. Embrace it and thrive, for we deny it to our own peril.

6. I Sit by the River

And with that I’ve come to the end of my words. Except, of course, there is always room for one more story:
As the teacher grew weary from pointing, she knew it was time to step away in order for the community to see what was right before them. “What is it we fail to see when you are with us?” they asked for they truly couldn’t see.
She waited until perhaps the very last moment to speak her truth, for its simplicity was quite unbelievable.
With a twinkle in her eye and a heart filled with love she explained, “For years I have sat on the edge of the river, handing out water. Now it is time for me to wade in the water. And after I am gone, I trust that you will notice the river for yourselves.” (based on an Anthony de Mello story)

Ready or not, we have come to the water’s edge.
I’m ready to wade. And you?