Monday, September 28, 2009

Taking Care of God's Creatures... or, the episode in which Talitha turns into a cat lady

So I got a kitten a while back. The deal was: he's adorable, his host house wasn't so crazy about having a family of four kittens, they said I could "borrow" him while I'm here even though I can't count on bringing him to California (where my housemates have allergies).
So plan A was: Talitha will not get emotionally attached to this cat.

yeah right.

Well he came home last night a little sore from his adventures (rumor had it that a dog had chased him), but walking fine and I thought nothing of it. A few hours later, however, all hands were on deck for full-time Cat Coddling. He had stiffened up, developing a sore leg, crawled into a little ball, and refused to purr. I brought him food in his bed, and piled up pillows next to anything he might want to jump onto or off of. In the morning he walked around on three feet and I felt he might be "okay" -- he came outside with me and ran a decent three-legged gait, gimping along behind me as I watered the church gardens. But I borrowed a cat carrier from a neighbor anyway, and was glad of that when he worsened. Talking to the vet's secretary on the phone I figured out he might have a bite wound that was giving him infection and a general fever.
$67 and antibiotics later, he's still miserable, but he now has a stylishly shaven leg, and he knows who loves him.

I don't know exactly where the line between "temporarily hosting a cat" and "doting cat lady" lies, but I am rather sure that I have crossed it.

PS update the next day: he wakes me up purring, cheerful, ferocious as ever. Walks on 3.5 legs.

Also, 1600 years ago, John Chrysostom said: "Holy people are most loving and gentle in their dealings with their fellows, and even with the lower animals: for this reason it was said that 'a righteous man is merciful to the life of his beast.' Surely we ought to show kindness and gentleness to animals for many reasons and chiefly because they are of the same origin as ourselves."


A quote from Henry David Thoreau:
"My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know [God's] lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, in nature." I thank Wallowa County for the gift of many convenient halls from which to experience these wonderful masterpieces of Godly art.
There are so many these days...
the perfect (fibonacci-numbered) heads of sunflowers drying by my door
the apple tree, exuberantly hurling down new apples each day into our waiting buckets, bags, hands
the cold, frosty, starlit nights and the 80 degree afternoons

I went for a long evening walk (wishing for once that my cat were a dog who'd accompany me) and received the priceless performance of nature... hawks wheeling around above me, cattle looking up from their grazing to stare deeply at me, irrigation ditches running fast with water, the last rays of sunlight and the very first few yellow falling leaves.

My father, on his visit, pronounced the landscape "unreal" and on an "inhuman scale." Wallowa has higher mountains, colder lakes, taller trees, larger rocks, and greater fields of wildflowers than we ever typically experienced back East. This is no park. These things were not placed here for our enjoyment (much less our use) -- they are God's spontaneous and abundant creativity.
I thank God for the privilege of living here and being witness to all these oratorios and operas.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neither male nor female

I owe the blogosphere a feminist entry, especially as I dared to list "feminism" as one of my interests on networkedblogs, and as I have been mulling over it (hard) all summer.
Well I went to a Eastern-Oregon-wide Presbyterian Women meeting yesterday, reluctantly. I dragged my feet because it was, after all, 130 miles away, meaning we left before 7 AM, and I already had overworked all week long. A sabbath day and a nice nap later, however, I can say I am very happy I went. PW is really an awesome organization, with a devotional/Bible study element nicely balanced against a huge, unified, and powerful mission element. Eastern Oregon is one of the more active presbyteries in PW; although there were only about 25 people there, they represented a vibrant and active collection of women serving their local communities and the world. The Synod moderator was in attendance as well, all the way from San Jose!

Madam Moderator asked me to lead the assembly in a litany based on Galatians 3 and I gladly assented. It is a passage near and dear to my heart these days:
"all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Everyone, I think, would agree that this is one of the more poetic and beautiful lines Paul wrote. But I am grateful to be the company of people who believe that it is also one of the more central lines of his theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. I think this is Paul's central society-shaking message, one that scares us so much that it has scarcely been followed. There are, of course, other contenders for central position, and some, in the deutero-Pauline set, much less radically egalitarian - a little more along the lines of "keep doing what society tells you to do." The Bible is wide and varied - and whether we admit it or not, each of us chooses the passages which we consider central.

I choose this passage as central because of an exegetical principle, Lectio difficilior potior, "the more difficult reading is the stronger." That is, if there is a complicated or unexpected phrase, we the reader (interpreter - or scribe on an ancient manuscript) are likely to change it to something that makes more sense to us. We are not as likely to make mistakes in the reverse direction -- we are not likely to take a text that makes sense to us, and add a confusing word or phrase. If we have two texts side by side, copies from the same source, and one is easy and one is challenging -- then assume the challenging one is closer to the original source.

It is hard for us to believe and live the truth that Paul proclaims -- that when we are baptized into Christ we lose every other element of "identity" we used to have. We face the world with no labels, no restrictions, no mandates other than to live in Christ (Help, could we have a few rules and guidelines, please?).
It is easy for us to go along with traditional society -- for rich people to keep slaves, for men to rule women, for whites to associate with whites only, for folks of any other color to stick to "their own." It is easier for a wife always to defer and a husband to always rule -- because you always know who is going to give the ultimate answer. But when non-gospel rules and roles are abandoned, and all you have left is your common identity in Christ, you are likely to be at a loss for how to solve disagreements (hint: keep asking wwjd, over and over). It's harder to live that way.
It is easy to add commonly accepted rules and roles to the message of the gospel, to stick "jesus says" before all our favorite platitudinous statements. It is hard to go against the grain. Society tells us not to. Nature (allegedly / in traditional interpretations) tells us not to -- that it is natural for like to associate with like, and that our very bodies argue for the superiority of men and submission of women. We might read Paul as giving us a nice inspirational but ultimately impractical vision of the spiritual (non physical) life in Christ. If so, this is the easy way out.
The harder reality is to be preferred -- that Paul really intended us to take him literally here. That we really ought to discard notions of status, racial and gender superiority, and live against the old nature in the new reality of Christ, where our only clothing is the baptismal robe.

My mom pointed me to a great article and bit of advice: we should "mistrust any interpretation of Scripture that simply confirms our instincts. If it is more natural for a man to be aggressive and a woman to be passive, then a genuine encounter with Christ should challenge a man to become gentle and a woman to become bold.” (Brandon O’Brien, “A Jesus For Real Men” p 4.) The real Calvinist in me comes out -- reminding myself and you that our natural instincts are as flawed as any other part of us, and that human nature is seldom pure. We cannot sanctify the natural social order of things, or baptize human convention (as so many have tried to, even in the Bible).

All this to say I am grateful to belong to a denomination that positively laid this issue to rest years ago, affirming women in ordained ministry, challenging us all to live in the harder reality that goes against the grain and holds to a difficult - humanly, nearly impossible - statement that "we are all one in Christ."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Brief excursus for poetic purposes

For a few months now I've been wearing the same necklace nearly every day. It came from my aunt at Joie De Vivre several years ago. It's a compass, balancing precariously in some kind of watery solution. And whenever I'm asked about it I answer "oh, that's my moral compass." At which point I often get some quizzical looks, as if I had just confessed to voting in national elections by coin toss or tarot card.

This thing has exactly one thing in common with an actual moral compass: it does not function when held upside-down. In fact it is pretty sensitive even to sideways tilt (if I were really pursuing this metaphor I should accompany it with the level earrings that Joie also sells) and to all kinds of jolt and jiggle.
The poetic point to be gained by this is as follows: I am (and I bet you are too) perfectly capable of making integrity-filled moral decisions when I'm not upside-down or being shaken from side to side. If I step back from my quandaries and think about them, my moral compass will be able to function properly. If I take a moment to level my head before rushing into judgment, the results will come out much better.

So that's why I've been wearing this necklace. I might start opting for another, especially as Kitty really enjoys batting at this one (never harming the compass, but scratching at its wearer and her shirt).

Before I sign off however I must report one of the more charming adventures this compass has had... on a certain huckleberrying trip with a certain six-year-old, after she got bored with giving her companions a running commentary on which direction we were headed, the compass magically sprouted another direction, signified by "B," alerting us to where the bears were hiding, and when that grew tiresome, it even supplied us with "D" for dragon, and "L" for lion. It was a neverending font of important information.

Friday, September 18, 2009

simple discovery

I'm glad I learn things the hard way. If I had bought a "teen curriculum" for youth group, well not only would I (1) be frustrated with its simplicity and (2) rebel against the "fun activities" it suggests, but I never would have discovered how effective drama can be.

We're going through the Gospel of Luke. Usually we read a chapter and discuss it with some interesting questions I've come up with. Yesterday, at my wits end for "interesting questions," I just went ahead and did what everyone else advised: act out the story.
And I discovered that acting out a story gives about 400% more VITALITY than reading it off the page. That yes, the youth will groan a little "do we have to?" but as soon as they've acted it out they'll be connected to the story in a way never possible with simple reading.

If I'd had a curriculum, we would have been acting things out from the beginning, and I never would have known just how valuable it is.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Today would be a great day to be a cashier again.
I assumed that after a whole day of feeling blah, empty, useless, pointless, I might magically wake up today and be ready to go. Well, maybe it was the kitten puking in the middle of the night, or other causes for lack of sleep, or maybe it's just a longer case of the blahs than I expected, but I woke up this morning, spilled my breakfast twice, tried to pray (though my brain was doing the monkey thing), got up and looked at my list of things to do and came up totally blank again. Bible study for youth? urm, we'll read the bible and you can ask me questions. Sunday school plan for kids? how about a singalong. Plan an Outreach meeting? okay, November something.

See if I were a cashier I could still be purposeful. Focus is not required for beeping things through, bagging them up, politely telling people to have a nice day, cleaning the reg... Focus is great when you have it, the day feels better and goes faster, but if you don't have it you can still keep on.
But with such a self-disciplined job there is no such luck. No, church work requires you to have a BRAIN installed, and your heart in the right place, and new ideas, and eye contact, and compassion... (in the words of our vows -- to serve with energy, imagination, intelligence, and love).
Ugh, do I really want to take that vow? Professional cashiering just sounds so nice. But then again, there's no blogging while you check groceries.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

amazing comment!

Word Biblical Commentaries are generally not my favorite. BUT since there's no theological library here, I use what I got, and what I got are Anchor and Word, each in partial set.
Word vol 35b!!! by John Nolland. On the parable of the Good Samaritan. Page 597. be with me, folks -- it's amazing --

The lawyer asks, "who is my neighbor?" Jesus suggests that we should answer that question from a vantage point of isolation and desperate need
(i.e. ask -- if I were lying in a ditch near-dead, who would I look for to be a neighbor? anyone.)
and then make use of that same answer
(who's my neighbor? anyone)
when we come to the question from a position of strength, when it is within our gift to be handing out favors, rather than receiving them
(when someone else is in the ditch and we are not).

Amen and amen!

I interpret this further. "What does the law say?" was the original question, the original answer "love God and neighbor," counterquestion "who is my neighbor?" and counteranswer "think about it from the other side."

I interpret it further (but not much further -- jesus spoke in medical terms too, and addressed it to a lawyer) -- If I were lying in a hospital ditch without insurance, my neighbor would be anyone who could help me -- be it a church holding a pie auction to raise funds, or a lawyer proving that I and my comrades in uninsurability deserved care NOW, not later.

I interpret it further. "How should I show love to my neighbor?"

Think about it from the other side. If you were a victim, how would you want love shown?

and you'll often find that victims don't sit around philosophizing. Often the answer is "JUST HELP NOW!!!"

Sunday, September 13, 2009


In some other areas of the world I've lived, it's trendy to be "locavore:" to eat food grown only within a strict radius, in order to reduce "food miles" and support the local food economy. I tell you the truth, for 10 months out of the year, this would be a rather treacherous diet to keep in Wallowa county. There are, of course, those who have greenhouses, and many people do can or dry food to last through those other months.
But for two months or so, this county is bursting with food from every corner. Plums and apples fall from the trees, and many people have small veggie plots if not an outright Garden.
Being a professional visit-er-of-persons, I get a lot of gifts.
Here is just today's count of fresh food:

Back in seminary I lived in a community house and we got a CSA box (community supported agriculture -- it's basically vegetables by subscription, giving us a lower price and the farm a constant and reliable customer). We'd nibble on things all week long, but invariably there would be much uneaten. I got into the habit of making Friday night veggie-box-soups; throw everything in a pot and spice it up somehow.
Today I'm not feeding 8, but a small version of veggie box soup is coming right up. Potatoes, carrots, leeks, and green beans on the side.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reclaiming some absolute trash

First: the trash. Really, I'm horrified, but I know they are rather mainstream... "Christian Foam Craft Supplies." (please if you are a supporter of said junk, just stop reading now. I'll make you very angry).
These are: shrink-wrapped boxes full of little foam pieces, sold in packets of a dozen, with each subset shrink-wrapped, and often including beads, strings, glitter, or pipe cleaners that are -- you guessed it -- shrink-wrapped again. These foam pieces are pre-cut into the Right Shape, and if they need further decoration (such as drawing eyes on the pre-cut face) those are pre-done too. Entire factories of Chinese workers assemble these kits all year long, and then somebody arrives with a missionary team, and tries to tell them that the "Jesus loves you" message they've been busy stamping on foam pieces actually means something.

Second: The Assumed Purpose.
On the other side of the world, your tender tots are supposed to assemble these into inspirational picture frames, or fridge artwork, or oversized bookmarks, which their grandmas will cherish, and their grandpas will accidentally throw away, mistaking them for the trash they are.
The genius in this plan is that the Bible verses are already written on, so there's no danger of misspelling Jesus' precious name. The pieces are already cut into the Right Shape, as I've noted, so there's no danger of the "red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight" childish faces being accidentally elongated, having three eyes drawn on, or being colored (horrors!) blue instead of those other poetic colors. The rainbow colors for Noah's Ark are already cut into the Appropriate Sizes, so although your children must glue them (with special Foam Glue) onto the sky, there is no danger of having the colors fall out of the Proper Spectrum Order.

Three: the Problem
Seriously? You've taken all the cuteness out, for one, leaving only the option of gluing something upside down for funny mistakes. Also, how on EARTH are these children going to learn to think critically, to use their imaginations, to become entepreneurs, if all they can do is follow foam-glue instructions?
AND ALSO, (think ye not that I am done with this soapbox), can you explain to me what "I heart Jesus" keychains have to do with actually loving jesus?"

BUT ... our previous Sunday School director was harried, hassled, short on inspiration, and as she will freely admit, "haven't got a creative bone in my body." So she ordered a lot of these sets, and they are still all hanging around in the church basement -- some unopened, some half-used up.

Four: The Redemptive Effort
Yes, I am trying to redeem these things. I started with the half-used up bags, and I began assembling a Collage Material Basket. The important part of this game is that you have to take everything away from its assumed use. For example, you simply cannot have the candle-shaped foam piece right next to the "let your little light shine" foam piece. That's too easy, too stultifying. I want to know, kidlings, how you are going to use a pentagonal foam piece, with these little ribbons, and sequins, and those "Jesus Loves the Little Children" faces, and some popsicle sticks, to illustrate the building of Solomon's Temple and/or the theme "You (plural) are a temple of the Holy Spirit within you."

TRY IT PLEASE. You may use cardboard as well, if you like. And I will not give you any answer as to how this "should" look, because I sure as heck don't know. Please go ahead and blow my mind.

[post-class update: I only had two boys today, and they being exceedingly bright, went along fine with my attempt to condense and summarize a masters/doctoral level seminar into a five-minute lesson. The collage idea was great. But further proof that Foam Pieces are a Bad Idea: when it came to collaging, they picked out every non-foam item in the basket. Neither of them used more than a single piece of foam in their entire work. Here for your entertainment: and feel free to guess which one Talitha did. The other two pictures feature the ceiling of Solomon's temple, and the Ark of the Covenant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I want to be a Community Organizer!

And by that... I might mean something different than others.
Don't get me wrong -- I love marching for the unions... especially if I get a bucket to drum on. I am a proud member of Seminarians for Worker Justice. I believe in bathroom breaks and health benefits.

But as for my new passion -- I'm talking microcommunity here, not these big systems. I'm talking a 60-person church, a 24-unit housing project.
I love getting things together. I love convening committees. One of the things that makes my church so awesome is that there is so much free-floating energy that just needs focused (as they say here).

Yesterday - on my birthday - I was invited to a brainstorm session regarding a particular low-income housing project in the next town over. It has meth dealers, impoverished folks, elderly disabled, young families, a bad reputation, and a locked "community room." At the meeting were reps from DHS, community non-profits and government agencies, the women's shelter, the library, and NorthEast Oregon Housing Association (the landlords of the project in question). And two concerned clergy. Absent from the meeting were any residents of said project.
They gave us a whole shpeel on how effective it would be to provide "wraparound" care at this place -- to provide childcare, transportation, food bank, and educational workshops for the residents on-site -- and how greatly it would improve everything.

I sat there thinking of college residence halls. Although I was never an RA I was one of approximately four people who did attend our RA's sponsored programs, because I felt bad for her and I wanted her programs to be successful. Our RAs gave us budget workshops, resume-writing workshops, cooperative baking nights, family-style dinners, etc. The only successful program I can recall was Assocksination, wherein you "kill" your floormates by pegging them with a pair of socks. We residents were all well-off, educated, functional young people (with the exception of not a few cases of raging alcoholism) and yet most programs failed.

And here, in Enterprise Oregon, are a bunch of excruciatingly well-dressed social-service do-gooders, and they think they'll get all these residents, entrenched in generational poverty, attending their educational workshops on depression?
RIGHT. says I to me. YOU ARE MISSING A VERY IMPORTANT ELEMENT. And I raised my hand a billion times and when I finally got the floor I starting shpeeling, myself, about adding value to the community itself. About ownership, about bottom-up, not top-down, and especially about how the project will need to develop the amount of pride and self-policing that is necessary to keep a community room UNLOCKED and USABLE.
We talked. I really don't know if those landlords heard it, but at least by the end of the meeting lots of us kept on saying "bottom-up," and talking about surveying the residents with the question "what can we (inclusive we -- us AND Y'ALL) do to make this place work?"

Well today we had another meeting. This is the Faith Community Collaborative, normally a hodgepodge of said social service do-gooders, and clergy. Coincidentally, only clergy showed up today (we prayed - don't tell the supervisors of the state-sponsored conference room in which we met!) ... and we talked, a lot, about this. We talked about college again too. Good old SUNY Binghamton, and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship there... I told the story of how Christians used to isolate in "suites" of six people on the quiet nerdy side of the campus where they stayed up late playing video games (sorry for stereotyping, it's the truth). Not in the raging alcoholic side of campus where I lived with my musician buddies and various other suspiciously non-Christian folks. I used to say "I live in Newing" and those nice Christians would work hard to mask their horror -- wow -- i'm sorry -- i know a friend you could move in with on the other side of campus if you want ... But after I left, under the leadership of the fabulous Carrie Moorhead, those nice quiet Christians started moving in the opposite direction, INTO the nasty dorms, where they commenced to have Bible Studies and to generally live life with people they used to avoid. Many people were transformed and I do believe the fellowship grew because of it (both wider and deeper).

We clergy started talking about moving into the housing project. Not moving one of us, in particular (although they unanimously recommended *i* should do it, were I to be here for more than 3 more months), but our parishioners, our church members, our friends. It will take some Doing, as this place has such a bad rap -- but what it takes is looking it as a ministry opportunity rather than a last-resort living arrangement. Once having "planted" someone with the mindset of ministry, (and support from their faith community) we start them with "I'm inviting my knitting circle over this Saturday, would you like to join?" and down the line, "I'm having a Beginner Bible Study next week, would you come?" and "want to help me plant flowers in the front of the project?" and "we should have a BBQ" and ON AND ON YOU GO and the place has VALUE and PRIDE and COOPERATION.

This is the community organizing I want to do.
It really is too bad I have to go back to school. I would do this. I would organize capture the flag games with the kids in the project, and lasagna bake-offs with the food bank donations we'd have stocked in the unlocked community room, and plant a kick-butt garden, and spread the GOOD NEWS OF GOD by word and deed alike.