Did She Have A Demon or Was She Demonized?

10410506_10204185429094343_4501902096333581439_nA sermon on Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

When I look out over the crowds of citizens protesting the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, I see a familiar face raising her hands. She’s the woman in today’s gospel described as a Canaanite woman. Let me break that down for you. For Jesus and his disciples she was otherized as a pagan, unclean by birth, an alien. She was silenced as a woman and she’s usually been quiet, trying to fly under the radar of those watching for her to take one step where she doesn’t belong, waiting for her to make one wrong move.

This Canaanite woman is usually quiet but one day everything changes. Now it’s her child who is profiled. Her own daughter is being demonized. And so now this quiet woman begins to shout at the top of her lungs: NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. Actually she’s shouting “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” First, let’s not over-spiritualize this. I think we can assume that the torment was spiritual and it was personal but it was also public. It had social and political ramifications. It was part of systemic racism towards Canaanites. This woman’s Canaanite daughter was not only tormented by a demon- she was demonized which is an ongoing part of racism because, say, if you are going to shoot an unarmed person with their hands up, you have to dehumanize them first.

And so this Canaanite woman who is usually a paragon of quiet pride lets loose- “Have mercy on me, Lord, my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
The reaction to her outburst is swift and comes from the ranks of organized religion, if you consider the first 12 disciples organized. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Send her away. We’ve got other things to work on now. Send her away. How dare she raise her voice at us?
After all we do to help others! We’ve built houses with Habitat. We’ve given food to the food pantry. We’ve even sent our own children on mission trips to help the poor so don’t try to make us feel guilty. We’re his disciples! “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

But what about Jesus? Surely Jesus will listen to this woman.
Jesus answered: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
What? This is JESUS comparing this woman’s child to a dog?
Joining the systemic dehumanization of God’s children that is used to rationalize their being treated as less than human? How can that possibly be? Well, when we say that God became human, it doesn’t just mean that Jesus had a human body. It means that Jesus grew up and was socialized in a particular time and place and culture, a culture that historically feared and demeaned Canaanites. This Canaanite woman however is not going to stay in her place and allow her child to be demonized. Once again she raises her voice, with a clever come back to Jesus’ comments about her daughter being like a dog. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Did she just say that? Yes she did and.. what’s more remarkable is that Jesus allows this woman to stretch his mind, to change his mind. This gospel story turns out to be a testimony to the power of listening to voices from the margins that many conveniently ignore and allowing those voices to change us.

Jesus set aside equality with God as a thing to be grasped. Jesus abandoned the perfections of glory for the limitations of flesh and blood. The gospels give us a number of examples where Jesus struggles. In the wilderness, in the garden of Getsemane and on the cross. Perhaps his encounter with the Canaanite woman is another such struggle. Maybe Jesus was struggling with a radical ministry that led him into uncharted territory with people he’d be taught to avoid but he works right through that struggle and because of THIS phenomenal, audacious Canaanite woman Jesus will never demean a Canaanite or Samaritan person again. Just the opposite. Now he raises his hands in solidarity with her righteous protest. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed instantly.”

The Canaanite woman had mentioned crumbs that fall to the dogs from their masters’ table. But I have to say that when I see her standing in the crowd of protesters in Ferguson with her arms raised, I don’t think she’s asking for crumbs any more. When I see her in the ruins of her home in Gaza, I don’t think she’s asking for crumbs any more. When I see her standing before the grave of children dead from Ebola, I don’t think she’s asking for crumbs. When I see her sending her son across the border to avoid being murdered by gangs, I don’t believe she’s asking for crumbs.
The time for crumbs is over. And by crumbs I mean, prayers without action. What MLK called, “A high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” Tolerating people instead of accepting them as equals. Multicultual music without authentic multicultural community. Seeking to preserve the peace while avoiding the uncomfortable work of justice. Refusing to recognize the need to repent of our complicity in systems that perpetuate racism and breed injustice. Giving people crumbs from the table instead of a place at the table, even if it means, giving up our place. Offering our leftovers rather than our first fruits. Crumbs. Crumbs won’t cut it.

I think it’s really important that right before this story in Matthew’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. People that the disciples once again wanted to send away. But Jesus gives the people what they need. An abundant meal. A feast. So much food that there are baskets of leftovers. Because crumbs were not enough.

Jesus doesn’t do crumbs. When you and I come forward this morning for holy communion, bringing our own crummy, ragged, imperfect, needy selves, Jesus will not offer us a little crumb of love nor a little crumb of forgiveness. Jesus gives us his body and blood. Jesus lays his life on the line for us. Instead of crumbs from the table, Jesus offers us a place with him at the table. And then sends us out to go and do likewise. To listen, really listen to the cries of those on the margins of our awareness. To talk to someone we’ve be taught to demean and allow our hearts and our minds to be challenged and changed. To set tables of extravagant, equalizing welcome for those who expect nothing more than crumbs and to step aside for those who demand their rightful place at the table where the only Lord and master is Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t offer crumbs to the world. God is not in the work of giving out crumbs. God provides the best. And truth be told, when I look out and see you. Each one of you, what I see is a brilliant reminder that God is not in the work of giving out crumbs. God provides the best. For you. In you and through you. And for that, for you, I say thanks be to God!

Close Call

ImageThat’s what this needle-sharing incident turned out to be. I was the last one to use the needle. A seminarian working at the church was second. A resident at our shelter got the fresh needle since it was hers. She has been diabetic since childhood and has to inject herself with insulin four times a day. We have sharps containers at the shelter, but when this young woman was out during the day, she had been wrapping her used needles in paper towels and stuffing them into her backpack.

At some point, when she was getting ready to leave the shelter for the day, the wrapped needle fell out of the backpack. Our seminarian picked up the crumpled paper while setting up for Sunday School and pricked herself, drawing blood. Later in the day, I did the same thing while showing the needle to a social worker.

Now two of us were on the post-exposure-prophylaxis HIV regimen even though it was extremely unlikely that we were exposed to anything. Nonetheless, such incidents make you more aware of your vulnerability. One moment you’re fine, the next moment, you’re not so sure. Others are not sure either. The informative paperwork that came with my pills was sealed in blue tape to ensure privacy, as though I had a dirty, little secret to hide. When it comes to HIV, even taking precautions makes one suspect. The highlighted instructions adhering to the bottles, refer to “your infection” as if it’s a given and advices me not to breastfeed. Twice a day, I felt a sudden solidarity with my friends and acquaintances who take the same medications as a matter of course. Every morning and evening, I felt grateful for the existence of these meds and the improvements that have been made to lower their level of toxicity and reduce side effects. I felt grateful for the many years of rich life these pills make possible and thankful for the courage and perseverance of those who endured years of a regimen that was far more taxing. And twice a day, as I paused to swallow, I paused to pray for the many people around the world who cannot access this life-saving medication that costs around $2500 a month without insurance.

This entire incident is not what one expects in the church fellowship hall, but when you share space with ten homeless queer youth, some who inject hormones (long needles) or insulin (short needles), no precautions are foolproof. We have now fine-tuned our protocols to be as fail-safe as possible; however, the only way to stay perfectly secure is to stay away or to close our doors to this population. But these are not options.

It strikes me that our very call to ministry is a close call. It is a call that draws us close to the sharp edges of life. It is a call that exposes our vulnerabilities as we refuse to stand apart from the pain and need around us. Following Jesus is always a close call and while some of the results are not yet in, we live in hope and anticipate joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Thursday and We Weren’t Really Expecting Jesus

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It was Holy Thursday and we were remembering Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. For a number of years we have done this with a dinner that includes Holy Communion. We also read the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then we wash and dry each other’s hands as a sign of honoring service to others. Afterwards, we go upstairs into our sanctuary for the stripping of the altar.

Each year, we hang flyers about our Holy Week services outside the church. There is a brief description of each day and Thursday’s mentioned dinner.

It’s a potluck so you never know exactly how much food is coming and what it will be, but usually everything works out. It was working out again, although, truth be told, there was not going to be much in the way of leftovers and one person who was bringing chicken didn’t show. Then, about halfway through the meal, several dozen homeless men and women came to the door. They had responded to the magic word on the flyers. Dinner. Oh.

If this were Passover, Elijah had actually shown up and we had to scramble to find him a place to sit and food to eat. And I’m proud to say that we did. A few people emptied their plates…onto someone else’s plate. And the person who came late with the chicken was miraculously right on time.

I had to somewhat awkwardly explain that, of course, everyone was welcome but, just so we all knew, this was not actually a community meal like we have on Thanksgiving. It was a worship service. Of course, all were welcome to the worship service, which was also a dinner. Which was confusing to people who were just hungry and who had come to community meals in this same space. And isn’t Holy Communion a community meal too?

Then it was time for the hand washing, which of course, is symbolic. No one is actually washing. We pour out water and dry each other’s hands. We don’t even use soap. It turned out that people who were really hungry also really wanted to wash. One woman came forward and splashed water on her face while the person before her, lifted the towel and gently dried. For her it was not symbolic, she was washing.

We Lutherans say that Holy Communion is not a mere symbol. We say that Jesus is really present in flesh and blood, even if it looks like bread and wine. And so it was. Jesus really present, even if he looked like a hungry man eating chicken and a hungry woman washing the grime from her face.

 

When God Was A Little Girl (a review)

A front-page editorial in a recent Sunday New York Times asks “Where Are The People of Color in Children’s Books?” Church libraries face the same challenge and such diversity as there is rarely gets extended to God who is almost always male and, in the case of Jesus, also white. I recall one book where a multiethnic group of children stand gathered around a manger that holds a very white baby Jesus.  It is an image of diverse humanity paying homage to a white child.

The outstanding exceptions are few and far between. Happily, When God Was A Little Girl. written by David Weiss and illustrated by Joan Lindeman, can now be added to that list. The author responds to his young daughter’s questions about God by telling the story of creation using the image of God as a little girl doing an art project. The race, ethnicity and age of the girl change from page to page. The girl-child God uses all manner of paint, song, glitter, colors, darkness, light and clay among her creative tools.

People are created in “bunches” and  “each one was a little different. Some were the color of deep, dark dirt; some looked like the pale sand on the beach. Some were boys and some were girls. Some were taller; some were shorter. Some were thin; some were round. And God thought they all looked just right!”

According to When God Was A Little Girl, all of creation is a work of art made by an art-project loving God.  A child can readily understand their own creative inclinations and work as a reflection of being made in God’s image, both boys and girls.

It is unfortunate that the image on the top of the book’s website has cut off the darker shading in the original picture it is taken from, but that is your link to purchase the book and It is wonderful book to add to any church or home library and to share with a child near you. I hope it will inspire other creative efforts by authors and artists who are dissatisfied by the gender myopic, monochromatic palette that dominates so much of our public imagination.  

http://whengodwasalittlegirl.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Jesus Denied Nicodemus a Copy of Christianity for Dummies

I remember one Sunday when I was very young, maybe 4 years old and I was with my parents doing what we did every Sunday. I was sitting in the back seat of our car on the way to church. I had my special white gloves that I only wore on Sundays. They were either plain white gloves or lacy ones in the spring and summer. I also had a special church pocketbook and for some reason I don’t know, I had special church handkerchiefs. Some came from my grandmother in Switzerland and were embroidered with alpine flowers, others had cartoon characters printed on them. I usually took six or seven with me. I removed them from my pocketbook and looked at them and organized them in the pew at church to entertain myself during boring sermons. Anyway, one Sunday like every Sunday I was in the car with my parents and we passed a tennis court. I looked up in time to see that there were people playing tennis. My mind sprung into action. How could this be? It was Sunday morning! Years later my mother told me that I had arrived at the only possible answer…which I shared from the back seat…they must have gone to the early church service. In the simple world of my early childhood, it was unthinkable that someone would not be going to church on Sunday morning. I had not yet been exposed to the idea of different religions. Much less unbelief. Only Tennis after an early church service could fit into my world view.

 Of course, this world view did not last. By the time I was 7 my best friend had died and the questions began. Why did she die? Why did unfair things happen? Why did God allow this or that to go on? Why was the world like this and not like that? A few years later, I absorbed the images of concentration camps shown in school, the pictures of starving children offered at church and TV footage in my living room from the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam and race riots in nearby Newark. This was not the world as it was supposed to be and I was the kind of child who lay awake at night puzzling over such things. If Jesus was the answer, he wasn’t sharing that answer with me. It’s interesting that many people turn to the Bible for answers. Sometimes, we do find the answer we need in these pages, but these very pages are also filled with questions. In fact, the word why occurs 4231 times in the Bible and why is only one way to begin a question. Here’s a sampling of Biblical questions:

Why have you brought trouble on this people?

Why have you sent me?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Why this uproar among the nations?

Why do you stand so far off?

Why do you hide when times are hard?

Why does my enemy oppress me?

Why do you forget we are exploited?

Why do the wicked prosper?

Why am I discouraged?

Why is my soul downcast?

Why have you rejected us?

For a book where people seek answers, there sure are a lot of questions. In fact, even Jesus flings his own soul-wrenching question from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Few of these questions get direct answers. I am reminded of a book I read by Rainer Maria Rilke in the midst of my youthful questioning, Rilke writes in response to the questions of the young poet. …I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart …Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

I thought of this recently when I was reading the story of Nicodemus in the gospel of John. Nicodemus is a smart, educated, well-positioned leader, but something is missing. He’s wondering about things that don’t make sense. He’s a spiritual seeker, longing to understand more about God and about his own path for life. We’re told that Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus at night. Many commentators assume that Nicodemus went to Jesus at night because he was embarrassed to go during the day. He didn’t want others to see him with Jesus, to appear to be straying into unapproved places. Or maybe Nicodemus just thought that night was the best time to catch Jesus alone and get his full attention.

Rabbi he says, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. Nicodemus begins with what he knows…and leaves the rest unspoken, all that he does not know and longs to know. Jesus answered truly I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus has two questions. How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? Nicodemus longs to understand more, but he is stuck with his very concrete, literalistic mindset.

Jesus doesn’t make fun of Nicodemus. He tries to help him see in a new way The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. According to Jesus’ words here, being born again is not a formula, it is not a creed, it is not legalistic proposition, it is life lived open to mystery, life lived open to the unexpected, it is being receptive to the movement of the spirit, And Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into this spirited, windswept realm where you might be led to places you never could have imagined.

But how can these things be asks Nicodemus who is still confused. Jesus is not giving him the 4-step plan he wants. Nicodemus would have been right at home in the self-help section of any bookstore but Jesus is refusing to be pinned down between the covers of a book. Even if that book is the Bible. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Jesus doesn’t provide a set of rules, but instead offers a relationship of ongoing trust and love. And speaking of love, we come to a verse that is one of the most famous verses in the New Testament. It’s a favorite slogan of religious fundamentalists, often reduced even further at sports events where fans just hold up the numbers John 3:16. Tim Tebow used to paint it on his face.

For God so loved the world….it goes on to say that God gave God’s son and all who believe in him will be saved, and presumably win football games…I too believe that God so loved the world… and loves the world, but no true love can be reduced to a placard. We can’t tame the mystery and power of love and bend it to our control, to our limitations, rules and regulations, to something we can possess and hold in one hand with a hotdog or a beer in the other. How strange it is that this very text has been used perhaps more than any other in the whole bible, to close the door on our questions. It’s strange because Jesus takes Nicodemus’ questions seriously. When did church become a place where you come for answers but get the feeling that questions are unwelcome, where questions are pushed into the shadows? Jesus welcomes Nicodemus’ questions. He does not condemn him.

If you Google images on line for John 3:16, you’ll get tons of them. If you Google images for John 3:17. You get nothing. John 3:17- Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. I wonder why John 3:17 isn’t as popular as John 3:16? John 3:17 is uncomfortable. It even challenges me when I condemn those who misuse John 3:16.

Speaking of questions, a colleague of mine is a social work supervisor and child specialist at Harlem Hospital. He’s also a pastor. A few days ago, he was asked to help a father explain to his six year-old little girl that her mother and sister died in the recent explosion that killed 8 people in East Harlem. Whatever he says, whatever the father says, is not likely to satisfy that little girl’s questions. No matter what answers emerge as to gas leaks and building infrastructure, they are not the kind of answers that will provide any comfort to that little girl, nor to her father.

I think our life together is part of the answer. The father of that little girl will likely never have good answers for her, but if he keeps on keeping on in the midst of his grief, if he gets the support he needs and is able to surround her with love and show her that her life is precious, that her life matters, he will help her live into a new day. Our stumbling, fumbling attempts at love in the face of pain are part of the answer.

It seems that Nicodemus found his answer in living the questions too. When he leaves his conversation with Jesus, there is no sign that anything is really resolved for him. But we meet him later in John’s gospel, on two occasions. When Jesus is arrested and the disciples have all run away, hiding in the shadows. Nicodemus steps out into the light and speaks out on Jesus’ behalf. He takes a courageous risk for the sake of justice and truth. And then again, after Jesus has been crucified, a man named Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus body in order to bury it.

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

All those fragrant spices– a hundred pounds, carried by Nicodemus to bury Jesus. All that love. Like us, Nicodemus never got is copy of Christianity for Dummies with all the answers inside. But he found a way to live with his questions, to risk truth and stand up for justice and bear the weight of love. I think that NIcodemus was born again, or at least, his life showed signs of the new creation we await when all is clear and we will dwell in that place described in the book of Revelation where the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb and night will be no more.  Until then, we live the questions. risk truth and stand up for justice and bear the fragrant weight of love.

 

 

 

Silence=Death


The words on this church sign say:”OBAMA HAS RELEASED THE HOMO DEMONS
ON THE BLACK MAN, LOOK OUT BLACK
WOMAN, A WHITE HOMO
MAY TAKE YOUR MAN”
This is the kind of hate that we have exported to fuel existing homophobia in other parts of the world.
Recently, a young person in our shelter was beaten to the point of broken bones. Not in Uganda, but here in liberal NYC. Safe spaces like Trinity Place Shelter (https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=trinityplaceshelter&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8) are more needed than ever as we labor and pray for a world that is safe for everyone, everywhere. We can celebrate the spring of marriage equality breaking out in more and more places, but we need to be just as vocal and organized around the ongoing winter of hardened hearts before the isms of our age, what Martin Luther King referred to as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” monsters that also continue to gobble up poor, queer youth – and some who are not so poor as well. “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”

Kneeling on the Sidewalk

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It’s becoming popular in some places to distribute ashes in public places such as train stations. Bragging about Ash Wednesday is most unseemly, but here I go. I’m proud that a small church in the South Bronx was ahead of the curve on this…by thirty years. This was not due to any cutting-edge pastoral vision, but thanks to Carmelo at the bodega. We had two scheduled services for Ash Wednesday, one in English and one in Spanish, until the year we had the unscheduled one. Carmelo, who owned the corner store by the church, wanted me to bring him some ashes since he couldn’t leave the store. I figured that taking ashes to the storebound fit into the same category as taking Communion to the homebound. When I came down the street with the bowl of ashes, I passed the group of men and women who hung out in front of the bodega in order to have easy access to the beer sold inside.  We always exchanged greetings. I invariably invited them to church,  and invariably they didn’t come. But on this particular day when they saw me approach with the ashes, as if on cue, they all knelt down on the sidewalk, obedient to some internal rubric. They begged me for ashes, and then some of them got up and went to find their friends. In the end, there was a congregation of about twenty-five kneeling by the bodega.

On Ash Wednesday the following year,  we decided to be intentional about taking the service to the street. There was regular worship in the sanctuary, but in the afternoon we went outside. More than a hundred people came asking to be blessed and marked with  the ashes. They asked for prayers for strength in recovery from addiction,  prayers related to health and relationship struggles. We weren’t more than twenty feet from the front doors of the church, and yet I knew that very few of those people would ever have walked through the church doors to request the same prayers and blessing. Why not?  They felt ashamed to enter the church. They were not homebound or storebound, but shamebound and afraid of crossing the border, afraid of being met with judgment and rejection. They didn’t realize how identical their condition was to that of the members who would later gather to worship inside the doors, many also HIV-positive, in various stages of addiction recovery, abused, homeless, poor–like all of us, for as Luther put it, we are all beggars. But there was no way for those outside to know this if those inside were not willing to come out and worship on the street, becoming by their very bodily presence a door into the welcoming body of Christ. People like the Rev. Andrena Ingram, who was a lay minister that day and is now marking ashes on her Philadelphia community as their pastor. The idea of ashes in the street seems to be catching on and it’s about time!

 

Fifty Shades of Changing the Subject

ImageA friend and former intern who serves one congregation on the US side of the border and one in Mexico mentioned the issue of whiteness in the Transfiguration story that is read this Sunday in many churches. He writes: “In this dazzling display of divine glory, Jesus’ clothes become white. I know that the Biblical text does not say that Jesus himself is white, but centuries of euro-centric liturgical art with a blue-eyed Jesus, as well as the upcoming feature film, seem to suggest otherwise. …In the Church, with our funeral palls and baptismal garments, we often use the color white to symbolize something good, pure, and holy. …Perhaps unintentionally, our liturgical practices seem to perpetuate this white superiority. … I am considering addressing these issues head-on this Sunday, but I don’t know if I want to go there.”

My colleague is expressing sensitivity to race, privilege and power as a White pastor in a Mexican community. His comments reminded me that three days after Transfiguration Sunday, we come to Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I flagged the line and composed my own post alerting fellow clergy who might be preparing Ash Wednesday worship materials to consider the impact of the verse. Soon, the responses rolled in. Some appreciated my post. Many did not.  What’s telling is how frequently my original point about race was forcibly sidelined.

This happened in response to my colleague’s post as well when responders began to zero in on the physics of light. Here is a sampling:

Isaac Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum…if you ask a scientist, white is a color – it contains the whole spectrum – and black is the absence of color. If you ask an artist – who deals in pigments rather than wavelengths – the answer is the opposite…I am not an artist, but I don’t think white is the presence of all colors. Isn’t black made when many colors are stirred together?

This is the evasive response to a pastor seeking support to discern his ongoing response to issues of race, privilege and power. Race as a reality that shapes our lives personally, as well as the social and economic structures in which we live, was also dismissed more directly: Caucasians are not white, only albinos are white…I think sometimes we need to get over our “whiteness” and join the human race. Sure, when future Trayvon Martins can get over their “blackness.”

In response to my post, the physics of light was not addressed; instead the conversation shifted to snow and laundry. Granted the psalm uses the imagery of snow and laundry (“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”), but my concern was obviously directed to considering the impact of that imagery in a society that is still divided by race, in a church that remains 97% White. It’s easier to talk about snow:

Compare new fallen snow as opposed to that leftover pile slowly melting at the edge of the parking lot – it’s filled with dirt, leaves, etc. “White” is not the issue unless you are focusing on your own prejudice instead of God’s Word…I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to the youth in my congregation for whom snow is mostly something they see in pictures or maybe if they happen to go to Flagstaff in the winter….Clean snow is white–dirty snow is black, brown, yellow, red–whatever happens to be contaminating it. This is a fact, not a racial statement…in rural, open-country Minnesota, when the snow is no longer white, it’s not because of the gunk from our cars and such. It’s because the wind blows the snow across the fields, and when it’s done with the snow, it picks up the fine, dry, black soil and deposits it on top of the drifts. That beautiful, wonderful, rich, dark soil is what brought our ancestors out here–not the “pure” white snow!

And laundry:

I think this passage is an image of laundry practices. Beating clothes with a stick so that they are washed white… this verse is not about skin color, it’s a metaphor on laundry. You want your whites to be white, and I hate it when my clergy blacks begin to be a bit gray… Did you know there’s a special laundry soap for darks?…My guess is that part of the appeal of whiteness, in this context (i.e. laundry), is that it requires a tremendous amount of work. We forget this because we have white fabric everywhere so we think it is the default… Maybe it’s because I still do the laundry in my household, but I have always associated those words with the ability of bleach and stain spray to remove the yuck we got all over our clothes…If you’re so concerned, translate it as “De-lint me and I will be blacker than my clergy shirt.”

But I was not asking for a detailed consideration of snow and laundry. Some who addressed my comment directly stated that our words do not matter, it’s actions that count. I agree wholeheartedly that words without actions are empty, even dangerous if we convince ourselves that we have done our duty by voicing a concern. But in my experience, words can have a mighty impact for good or for ill. Words can inspire or incite. Silence can be holy or complicit in evil. It was also pointed out that skipping or omitting texts is always a BAD idea even though our lectionary omits texts all the time and I was not necessarily suggesting we skip a text. As some pointed out, other translations are available.

As in the response to my friend’s post, the very reality of racial privilege was diminished as in a comment stating that White is not always preferable—because think of the expression, “white-washing.” Yes, white-washing. I’m thinking about it. When a colleague says that he is all for sensitivity and addressing painful issues from our past, but… to me, that white-washes the ongoing pain in our present.

Facebook is probably not a good place for such a discussion, and yet, perhaps it allows our true colors to come out. As we approach Ash Wednesday, I am also thinking of Jesus’ words to remove the log from my own eye before zeroing in on the speck in my neighbor’s eye. White privilege is not an illusion. It is not something in the past. It is a log in my eye that I cannot remove by my own power and so on Ash Wednesday, I will mark the sign of ashes on my sisters and brothers and I will wear it myself. I will remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return. And I will give thanks that God’s mercies are new every morning and that our conversation and conversion continues…

Companion to Strangers

Companion to Strangers (Building bonds in sorrow and love)

We read about the demise of church. Numbers are down. Church buildings are disintegrating or in closure. Metaphors are grim. The church as ship carrying us through the stormy seas has become the church as Titanic. Of course, we are people of resurrection. New forms are emerging like green shoots from dead stumps, and others shimmer on a horizon I find myself squinting at and unable to see clearly. In the meantime, I follow the shape of the church before my eyes. What I see does not discourage me in the least.

A year ago I received a Facebook message from a colleague on the other side of the country. He wrote from Los Angeles to tell me about a young woman he knew who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. The family had not yet connected to an East Coast church community but had reached out to my colleague from the shadowlands of trauma. Although they lived in Brooklyn, this husband and wife were spending almost all their time in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital where their 15-month-old son was dying.

I was in another hospital bed when the message came. I had just emerged from surgery with a new hip. It would take a few weeks before I was able to venture out, but my seminary intern was fit for the task even if she would have described herself as limping toward that intensive care unit, halting and unsteady before the door. Her ministry was all the better for that.

Pastorally, she limped and stumbled with them on that ground where no one can go with steady feet. She took the time needed—waiting, praying, weeping, listening, sitting. She was young and inexperienced for the task, but really, how does experience make such a journey easier? We often say that young people—and children—are the future of the church as if their powerful ministry is not happening here and now.

She helped Charlie, the five-year-old big brother, say good-bye. She stayed beside his parents as they hung on the edge of impossible decisions. I was steady enough to attend the funeral. There was Charlie, serious, sad, and clinging to his mother. His baby brother was there too, laughing from the huge photos prepared by coworkers in his father’s design company, who did what they knew how to do.

My intern preached, and I led prayers around a small white coffin that was tenderly covered with favorite stuffed animals. Afterward I was ready to help the family find a church home closer to where they lived, but they stayed with us. We shared a bond, tethered by sorrow and love from one side of the country, one side of the river, to another.  (to read the rest go to: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-02/companion-strangers)

Transfiguration in the ER

ImageIn the ER, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan. Urine sloshes onto the floor. I watch unwitting people step in it and track it all around the ward for about twenty minutes before the environmental team comes to clean it up. Hours later, my mother is admitted and I pay for her TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night, nurses took her down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why they have left a black, scotch terrier in the corner of her room. Despite the fact that I gave the doctor a detailed print out of all her medications, doses and times, no one bothered to give her the pill that prevents such hallucinations and fear.

My mother is in the hospital because unrelenting nausea has left her unable to eat or drink. The dementia comes from her Parkinsons, or from the medications that help her to walk. Or both.

Eventually I have to go home. My son, a high school junior, is in the midst of getting ready for midterm exams. Did he really need to go get a haircut today? I imagine college admission officers looking over his shoulder, frowning. He needs a motherly nudge. He wants me to look over his essay on Macbeth. The nudge is probably more my need than his. And I need to make phone calls, cancel a few meetings, ask our seminary intern to take over some other hospital visits.

I tell my mother that I have to leave now. She’s trying to hold back tears and tells me how afraid she is of being alone. The tuna fish sandwich that she couldn’t eat is now making me feel sick.  Or maybe it’s sandwich generation guilt, rising like bile. I’m reading the opening paragraph of “How Macbeth Lost Himself” when the phone rings. It’s my mother calling to tell me that they have taken all the furniture out of her room and she has no bed.

And so we come, to join the disciples on their trip up the mountain with Jesus. They must be exhausted by the non-stop demands of the crowds seeking the attention of Jesus. Soon they are sent off with power and authority into the same needy crowds to cure, proclaim and heal. They have an enviable run of success and return to tell Jesus all about it. But when he takes them to “withdraw privately” for a well-earned rest, they are interrupted by more crowds and the work of ministry continues. It’s been a long day and enough is enough. The weary disciples beg Jesus to send the crowd away. But we know what happens next– fish sandwiches for five thousand, or more like 15,000, counting the women and children.

When they finally do get a day off, it doesn’t feel much like a vacation with Jesus telling them about his upcoming suffering, “great suffering” actually, rejection, death (treatment they might expect as well) and on the third day, rising. I don’t blame them for missing the rising part. When you think you’re heading for the dungeon, anxiety and panic tend to block out everything else.

Eight days later, they are still reeling, in no shape for mountain climbing, even if it is to pray. Luke is the only one who mentions prayer as the reason for their mountain ascent. Why can’t they just pray where they are? But if I am honest, some days, many days, the attempt to pray is a steep, uphill climb on weary legs. And if I make it, it’s only thanks to the company I keep– Jesus, Peter, James and John– Jesus and the communion of saints, past and present.

Our fellow travelers make it up, but Jesus appears to be doing all the praying.  His followers can hardly keep their eyes open, another detail unique to Luke’s account, connecting the mountain of transfiguration and the Mount of Olives, unlikely twin sites of glory’s face and backside. But here, sleep does not overcome the three. They are startled by a flash of radiance. Jesus, who must have reached the summit as sweaty and dusty as they did, now shines with the light of heaven itself. The rough fabric of his clothing shimmers like a swath of sunstruck water. The disciples behold the glory of God. They see two men as well. Only Luke mentions the two men, as he likewise mentions two men in dazzling clothes at the tomb– messengers of glory at the brink of death.

Here the two men are introduced as Moses and Elijah: They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  The word translated as “departure,” comes from the Greek word for exodus, referring not only to the trip down the mountain and into Jerusalem, but to Jesus’ death. Moses’ presence makes the connection unavoidable; now Jesus will accomplish a second exodus, leading people safely through the waters of death, even as his own flesh is parted in waves of pain on the cross. But this talk of exodus and death in the midst of  transfiguration is lost on the disciples with sleepers and stardust in their eyes.

Peter gives voice to the confusion of his stunned companions, suggesting that they arrange to stay up on the mountain top. Unlike Peter, I have found the mountain top of this text a less comfortable place, perhaps because, unlike Peter, I have not been there. Each year, when this story comes up, I am eager to move away from mountain top to more familiar terrain. I feel more at home when they get down to the needy crowd. More at home with the parent who is desperate for the welfare of their child. More at home beside the disciples who now are powerless to effect a cure.

All the transfigurations I’ve seen, and I have been blessed to see them, have been down below. There, I have seen lives transfigured, demons cast out, children raised up. These are the transformations for which we work and pray and hope, the transfigurations that brighten our days with wonder and joy. But there are other days. We all have them.

This year, I’m less eager to rush down to the bottom of the hill. I’d like to linger in the story up on the mountain. I’d like to listen to the voice that interrupts Peter and brings balm in the midst of fear: “Listen to him,” we are told. Listen for dear life. Listen to words of forgiveness, mercy, promises of paradise, words from the cross. Listen without ceasing, on the edge of glory and the brink of death. I beg you to look at my son, a father cries out, echoing another voice: Here is my only begotten son with whom I am well pleased, listen to him. Listen on this hill and on another where darkness closed in.

When cures and healing are beyond our powers, when the shine on a loved one’s face comes from tears in the florescent lights of intensive care, or a sheen of sweat and blood, when the third day seems far off, on such days, how good it is to be here, in this story, listening to the voice that urges us to listen and to follow on, up or down, for the Word shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Glory be.   (2007)