Naming the Shadows

102815totentanz_detailOn their honeymoon in 1953 my parents visited Lübeck, Germany, to see St. Mary’s Church, the world’s highest Gothic cathedral built of brick. My father wanted to show my mother where he was baptized and confirmed. Eleven years earlier, on Palm Sunday 1942, an Allied bombing raid had attacked this jewel in retaliation for the Nazi bombing of England’s Coventry Cathe­dral. When my parents visited, repairs were under way. They could look up past the soaring arches and see the sky.

Among the many works of art destroyed in the firebombing was a painted frieze that wound around four walls of the confessional chapel. It de­picted a common medieval theme: the dance of death, or Totentanz.

In the painting, death dances with representative citizens, following a strict hierarchy. Death begins with the pope and the emperor, and then moves on to the cardinal and king. He slips a bony hand in the crook of the bishop’s arm, then the mayor’s. Death is all motion, leaping off the ground while the citizens of Lübeck stand stiffly resisting the inevitable: merchant, bailiff, nobleman, knight, doctor, moneylender, monk, hermit, farmer, sexton, peasant, maid, and finally, an infant in her cradle. For those who entered St. Mary’s chapel for confession, the city­scape of Lübeck depicted in the background brings the point even closer to home. The painting includes an exhortation to lead a righteous life while time remains. It is part of a genre of art that spread during outbreaks of the plague; in fact, a plague claimed thousands of lives in the vicinity of St. Mary’s only a year after the painting was installed.

A new version of the Totentanz, completed in 1956, is a point of special pride. The stained-glass window is a faithful vertical version of the original but has a few striking additions. Death goes through the same social ranks, but when he reaches the baby he is forced to his knees and covers his face with his hands. The child is Christ, and to make sure we don’t miss this, a golden label floats over the baby’s head: DEO. The baby in the crib is swaddled in bands for burial and appears to be rising from his crib as from a tomb, hands raised in blessing. The other departure from the original is the representation of the cityscape. The buildings of Lübeck are there along the bottom of the window, but the city is being attacked by angry, red tongues of fire.

This beautiful window draws millions of tourists each year. There is a sly social commentary in the original—the pope and peasant are waiting in line for the same dance partner. The point is the equalizing nature of our mortality. But given the church’s setting and history, that’s a lie. The 102 panels in this stained-glass meditation about death were all created within a decade of the Shoah in Germany, but there is no reference to the Holocaust. Not one piece of glass suggests the truth: not all deaths are equal. Not one piece suggests the lethal alliance of Shoah and church. Instead, Lübeck is envisioned as the victim of war with no role in and no contrition for the city’s complicity in millions of deaths. Streams of visitors come, take their photographs, and purchase their postcards, but leave without any mention of the Shoah. They receive no invitation to meditate on how they might live their lives in the wake of the Shoah’s macabre choreography.

Two of the citizens snatched away in Lübeck’s Totentanz were my Jewish grandparents. (read the rest of this essay here: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-10/naming-shadows)

Read the whole story in my new book: Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory and Faith (info on book page)

102815totentanz_detail

Advertisements

Gathering the Fragments

images-1One of the things required of the author of a soon-to-be published book is to find people who will write blurbs. Blurbs are short comments about the book that appear on the back of the cover or sometime just inside. I had to get blurbs for my upcoming book (Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory and Faith) and I found one of these blurbs to be kind of insulting to us as a church.

The blurb included this phrase: “the misfits at her New York church.” Now the writer of the blurb also told me to edit what she wrote and that’s what I did. I changed the misfits at her NY church to read the eclectic mix at her NY church Or eclectic community at her church. To me, to call everyone here a misfit just sounded kind of insulting. I wasn’t sure everyone would want to be labeled that way.

On the other hand, I bet that in our heart of hearts, many of us HAVE felt like a misfit at one time or another. Or all the time. Even if we don’t want to be labeled that way. I know that I have.  And that’s what drew my attention to something in today’s gospel that I never really focused on before. It’s a story that some of you may be familiar with. Sometimes we call it the feeding of the 5000. In this story, a little boy shares his lunch of 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, and with them, Jesus feeds the multitude. Jesus turns scarcity into abundance, This is a great stewardship sermon, if we just offer what little we have, instead of hoarding for ourselves, God can take that and use that to do far more than we can ask or imagine. Some people think it was a miracle of multiplying. Others think it was a miracle of sharing. And I think that all of that is true. I’ve preached about it many a time. And I’m sure we all need to be reminded of that, I know that I do, reminded that when we look around and see too little, God sees differently. That when I think I might as well save what I have for me and mine since my own wants and needs exceed what I have, God sees differently. God shows us a child with a lunch of bread and fish and challenges us to push beyond the limits we place on our generosity.

But there’s an old rabbinic saying about studying the Torah, studying God’s word. It says… Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. I’ve been turning this text inside out for many years and I AM beginning to wax gray. I’ve been turning it and turning it again for everything that is in it and lo and behold, this time, something different turned up for me. He told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

Gather up the fragments, gather up the broken pieces, gather up the misfits, so that nothing may be lost. Maybe besides being a stewardship story about giving, this is an evangelism story, a story about gathering the fragments, gathering up those rejected and tossed aside, those who are marginalized for whatever reason, the misfits, gather them all up so that nothing may be lost. And maybe it’s a story about truth-telling and justice, gathering up the shattered fragments of truth so that nothing may be lost.

What really happened to Sandra Bland locked up and dead after a routine traffic stop, especially routine if you’re driving while Black? The story comes in bits and pieces. In fragments. And each little jagged piece of information matters. To her family. To her friends. To all who wonder. The fragments that are uncovered will be bloodied and stained with hate, but they matter to those who loved Sandra Bland. They matter to those who identify with her. They matter to those raising Black daughters and sons and moral children of any color. They matter because #Blacklivesmatter And according to today’s Gospel, they matter to Jesus. Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” Have some pieces of this story been buried? Have some pieces of this story been hidden? Have ALL the fragments been crushed into dust beyond recognition? It seems that way. It seems that we’ll never know the whole truth of what happened. Because the hammer of racism has pulverized that truth.

That should matter to all of us who have been marked with the cross of Christ in baptism. Just as the hunger of the multitude matters. This is a story about feeding the hungry AND gathering the fragments. It is our work as the body of Christ. Feeding and gathering. We will not find all the fragments but we are called to find as many as we can. In the days after 9/11, I remember being invited by a priest friend to join him down at Ground Zero to bless body parts. Fragments of lives once whole. Holy fragments. Because they mattered. Every small piece that was once part of a larger, beloved whole.

Some of us know this in less extreme ways. Many of you know that I’ve been on a journey to discover missing pieces of my own life. I’ve been able to travel in search of fragments of my own lost Jewish history. Every piece I’ve been able to uncover matters to me. Many pieces got edited out of my book which is how it goes, but every piece matters to me. And in searching for whatever fragments I can find, I’ve heard from many other people. People who come from families with secrets, with things that just don’t get talked about, because of fear or shame or guilt or whatever reason, but that leave some aching to know, longing for even fragments of information. One woman mentioned the father her mother has always refused to speak about, “It makes me feel like half of me is missing even at the age of seventy.” The missing pieces of the puzzle leave an empty space that can haunt us.

We also can feel fragmented in other ways. Having too much to do. Torn between demands at work and demands at home. Fragmented in terms of all we have to do and all we long to do. We can feel that we are losing part of who we are. Illness can do it. Alzheimer’s is one disease that cruelly fragments the brain and loved ones long for even fragments of the person who used to be there. We live in a dismembered community, city, nation and world. Even the church commemorating the spot where Jesus is thought to have fed the multitudes has recently been burned down by arson. What God created as a gorgeous whole is been torn apart by tribe and race, by economic forces that separate what God has joined. We are surrounded by the fragments. We are convicted by the fragments. We are summoned by the fragments. Our identity as followers of Jesus is to feed the hungry, to be generous in sharing even in the midst of scarcity and ALSO to gather the fragments, that none will be lost.

What does this mean for us? This means that we prioritize those who are tossed aside and value those who are rejected by others. Nothing and no one goes to waste in God’s economy. I love something written by Derek Walcott, a marvelous Caribbean poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said: “Break a vase and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than the love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.”

The love the reassembles the fragments is the love of God. The love the reassembles the fragments is the love that gathers us here to worship. A friend told me about a Domestic Violence agency that has a “mosaic” project. In workshops, survivors of violence break old dishes and pottery (cathartic activity in itself) and then use the shards to make beautiful mosaics. Out of brokenness comes beauty and strength. Then my friend said, “I have a large, pottery lamp that was knocked over. I pieced and glued it back together as best I could but its scars are obvious. I love it.”

When Jesus rose from the dead, in beauty and strength, we are told that his scars were obvious. His scars were a reminder that he came to gather the fragments, the misfits, those whose lives were pulverized under the hammer of Roman injustice. Those who lives were scarred by sin. We gather in his name. A strangely beautiful mosaic of broken pieces joined together. More often than not, we sit, and sing and pray among people of different ages and races and back-rounds. We come together. Imperfectly. Inexpertly. But we work at it week after week. On Sundays and in Dinner Church. Pastor Emily Scott, who began a Dinner Church several years ago, recently said: “To sit around the table is not comfortable, but it’s holy … a place where heaven and earth overlap… The gap is real. Building relationships with our neighbors takes hard work and a lot of time and it’s not glamorous.”

No, it’s not always comfortable or glamorous. But it’s who we are. It is recovering God’s image in our own souls. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

Twelve baskets. Numbers are important in John’s gospel and 12 is a key one. There were 12 disciples. Reflecting the fact that there were 12 tribes of Israel. To gather up 12 baskets of fragments is to gather up 12 tribes, 12 disciples. Which means that the leaders God gathers are a collection of fragments. Broken, scarred, yes, misfits like us. Beloved misfits.

Of course, our work as disciples of Jesus is always imperfect and incomplete, as are we and there are always more fragments to be found and gathered. More pieces of shattered truth to uncover. More misfits to embrace. But we can carry on with the sure promise of our scarred Lord and Savior, that in the end, every fragment WILL be gathered up and nothing and no one shall be lost. Amen.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kneeling on the Sidewalk

Image

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…

Big Yellow Parrot vs Wild Goose

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

‘Til it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot. Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi”

Image

My church does not have a parking lot because we’re in New York City and almost no one here drives to church. On the other hand, the parsonage is next door to a parking garage run by a company called Quik Park. We’re also across the street from a playground bordered with four-story oak trees that can accommodate multitudes of rent-free birds. I wake up and hear the birds singing. Sometimes there are sirens because the park is next to a police precinct and a fire station, but the birds get far more airtime and I love it. Or I did love it, but something really weird and disturbing has replaced the birdsong.

It began with the parrots. Despite the rapid progression of global warming, the Upper West Side of Manhattan has not become a tropical parrot habitat. Some years back, I read that there were escapees among the thousands of parrots from South America smuggled through Kennedy airport. These feathered immigrants settled in Queens and a few went as far as Brooklyn, but none of them reached my neighborhood. Or did they? Why was I hearing the chatter of parrots outside my window?

I looked to the trees across the street but there were no parrots. In any case, now the birdsong seemed to be coming from the Quik Park garage. I stood on the sidewalk and listened to the trilling of birds interrupted by a chattering parrot. The sound was definitely coming from the depths of the garage, but that made no sense.  One of the parking attendants emerged from the shadows and I asked him about the strange flock of birds inside. “It’s our new alarm,” he said. Huh? Sadly, yes. It turns out that if you play a loud, mixed tape of recorded birdsong, it will keep the real birds away from your garage and off your cars. Presumably this was to fend off obstreperous neighborhood pigeons but now we cannot hear any real birds in the vicinity. Actual birdsong is prevented by an endless replay of birds that are not here, birds that may now be dead for all I know. I hear them now through the drafty, century-old windows of my office as I write during our polar vortex. It’s nine degrees outside and snowing, but the parrots chatter on.

This whole thing struck me as bizarre until I realized it was all too familiar. It’s what happens when we try to take the wild, holy spirit and fix it in time, recorded to play back, the same patterns, the same order, the same voices, year after year, over and over again. And one day, all authenticity takes flight. Of course, some words and patterns remain essential for the church, but some, perhaps many, are not. I hate the parking lot alarm but it’s a helpful warning too. It begs me to consider my own personal and pastoral complicity in this sham.