Friday, December 30, 2011
The woman who died was the mother of one of our COU employees, and although none of us knew her personally, it is traditional to accompany your friends to their family burial services. Hundreds of people were there, and it felt festive as they served food and made many speeches praising this woman's good long life (79 years old - ancient by Ugandan standards!). Piles of flowers covered the ornate coffin.
However today I just packed Shirah up to go to another burial, which will be much less festive. She got a call on my phone this morning that her baby cousin passed away at only 4 months. The funeral is actually in the same town Kamuli. I know it will be a sorrowful occasion. And why did the baby die? No one knows exactly but I'll venture it was directly caused by poverty - just too many diseases around, too little soap and clean water, too few doctors, too many challenges.
Please keep the grieving families in your prayers.
At Christmas I spent a while talking with Uncle Fred, who grew up in Daughters of Charity (COU's partner organization) believing that he was a total orphan. It wasn't until he was about to graduate from university that he met some people who encouraged him to find his family. Through personal connections and the use of a village loudspeaker, he eventually managed to reconnect with his aunt (Shirah's grandmother). The family had assumed he died in the war of the 1980s along with his parents. It was a joyous reunion of course. And as he began to re-integrate with his long lost family, he saw how many of his nieces and nephews were sitting at home without attending school. He decided to help Shirah and her sister (a small family, it's just them and their mother, as their father abandoned them a long time ago). Shirah was brought to COU and is now sponsored by my parents, and Uncle Fred personally sponsors Mercy. Their mother does whatever tailoring work she can, but she also struggles with poor health. It's hard to imagine how the family would have fared without Uncle Fred and the Daughters of Charity / Children of Uganda connection.
We celebrated Christmas morning with 3 hours in church. Comprehending only a tiny portion of the content of the service, I contented myself with singing English lyrics to the carols I knew, and contemplating the people around me. I've known that statistically, half the population of Uganda is under the age of 15, but here it was plain to see. Adults sat on benches, mostly well-dressed, but scores of messy children rustled noisily at our feet, unheeded and unminded. Tiny babies nursed from impossibly skinny mothers, or were passed from lap to lap. The pastor had to step over and around the children to get from pulpit to lectern and back. Even when a child (or two or more) was crying, the pastor simply preached louder. He had no microphone or amplification, but then again there were a lot of things the church didn't have yet -- a roof being one. This was the first Sunday in the new building, and the portion of the roof that hadn't been funded yet was covered by a tarp. We had an auction at the end of the service to try to complete the project.
Shirah's uncle introduced me to the congregation, near the end of the service. The deacon said "Clap for her! When else will we have a muzungu in this church?" I stood up and said Merry Christmas in Luganda and the place shrieked with happiness. Afterward everyone wanted their picture taken with me. I must have posed about a dozen times.
Back at the family home we had a traditional Ugandan meal featuring matooke and chicken. Their home is nice but sparsely furnished. I and two uncles were given stools to sit on and forks to use, while the other few adults and a dozen children sat on mats on the floor eating with their hands as is traditional. After eating we took all the mats outside and sat or sprawled in the shade of a tree while the teenagers did the washing up. We sat there much of the afternoon as neighbors came by to visit, eat cake, and catch up with the family members they hadn't seen in a long time.
Shirah's sister took me on a walk around the village. We greeted many an astonished child and some elderly women as well. "Thank you for coming to our village" was a refrain I heard often, and some of the villagers backed up their thanks with gifts. I came home with three large bags of just-picked peanuts, which we've been shelling for a few days now and plan to roast soon.
Back at Kiwanga that night, we had a teen-oriented Christmas party. Sodas and cake were the main refreshments, and camera flashes the main entertainment as people posed with their sodas, new clothes, and friends. I had brought a suitcase full of donated clothing which served as my Christmas presents, and these were the only presents I saw exchanged this year. I was happy to see some people wearing them at the Christmas party.
My sister Cassie & I used to blog together, back in the day (at http://tandcinuganda.livejournal.com), and she always had some profound closing remarks. In her absence, I invite you to insert profound remarks here by leaving a comment.
Monday, December 19, 2011
We gathered last night in the darkness of a Kampala power outage - me, Robert (director) and Constance (trainer) and Auntie Maria, the big mama of the home, called this girl to us, and hemmed & hawed for a bit until Robert coughed - Talitha, you do it. I nearly cried myself as I told her. She's one of my personal favorites too and I remember her from when she was in first grade.
The amazing this is how well she took it. She cried a little but then said she wanted to continue training anyway. We all agreed to let her train, and keep it a secret until she was ready to tell her fellow dancers. And I'm taking her shopping today for a new Christmas dress - small consolation but it will help.
As I write this (7:40 AM) the children are in the thick of training. I was awakened this morning by the slapping of their feet as they warmed up by running circles around the home. Sorrow may visit, but the beat goes on.
First - prices have risen, roughly doubling for food, fuel, transportation, and most necessaries, although the dollar only rose about 45% during the same time. So things are more expensive even for my dollar. The one exception is airtime -- the minutes purchased on your pay-per-use cell phone. Prices have stayed low due to stiff competition. On some networks you now pay per second, not per minute.
Second - phones are much more powerful. Nearly everyone has one now, and some people have one phone with two or more sim cards so they can use multiple carriers. Our teenagers at COU go out to the market to buy airtime in 25 cent increments. But phones are also used now for money transfers, like a bank account. You can put cash on your "mobile money" account, either to save it and take it off later, or to send it to anyone else - even paying bills or tuition via this method. Thus, any corner shop in any slum can be transformed into a bank.
Third - a few amazing high-rises have sprung up, gleaming bright on top, but with their foundations rooted in the muddy streets of Kampala. A very vivid reminder of the economic disparities which are markedly similar to the US - 1% and the 99%. There's a new Mercedes-Benz dealership, iPhones are advertised widely, and at the same time, millions of people are surviving on one meal a day.
Four - traffic jams are worse than ever before. There are just too many people on too few roads. New roundabouts and flyovers help in a few places, but mainly drivers look for bumpy back roads to escape the jams.
Five - aiya, all these children have grown up so much!
I've been feeling slightly out of it since I got here, but as their music swelled around me, all of a sudden everything clicked into place. Behind me: years of love and learning. Ahead of me: traveling to share this song. And in the here and now: gratitude.
The song they sang first was the first Luganda song I learned when I came in 2005 - tunakuwaki ffe - meaning "what can we give you, [God] but to praise you all our days?" That is the kind of gratitude I'm feeling now -- there is just nothing I can possibly do or say to do it justice. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve, for the huge privilege of bringing these children to America to share their song, and for the life journey that brought me to this place and this time.
Friday, December 16, 2011
The shopping is challenging. Gone are the days of yesteryear where we carried millions of shillings in our pants pockets and bought things helterskelter at the secondhand market, collecting little scraps of anonymous receipts to hand in... the auditors are much more strict and so we have to buy from legitimate business that can invoice us properly, making a trip to get a quote, a trip to pay, another trip to pick up the materials.
Lead performers Geofrey and Jane spent much of the day stringing together beads for the Rwandese dances. Robert and Geofrey inspect the work:
Robert isn't sure there are enough... especially not if he gets to wear as many as he wants...
First visit to Silas, a special child in our program who has always gotten extra attention because of his health problems – cerebral palsy among them. After several phone calls we found him at his uncle’s house for the holidays. They live out in a village where the children called me “Sheila” after a muzungu character in a soap opera – the only white woman they knew of. Silas is shy and didn’t have much to say, but it was good to see him there. He is healthy and when asked what he does for fun he replied “playing football.” This on crutches is quite an accomplishment!
Second visit was to Joseph, my boy from long ago. I was looking for a little terror of an 8-year old, but was happily surprised to see a tall and calm young man walk toward me in the back roads of his town. He is fifteen now and growing every minute, quite a bit taller than me already, and he says he is also growing up in other ways… that he no longer “disturbs” all the neighbors or keeps them from sleeping with his raucous behavior. Needless to say, they appreciate this and praise him for his maturity. I was glad to see, however, that he still has a fresh young sense of humor. In chalk he had drawn a TV screen on the bare wall of their house, complete with advertising slogans.
As we visited, his two little cousins came in and sat wide-eyed across the room staring at the muzungu visitor. I would turn around every few minutes to see another child or two had joined them. It is sobering to consider what a difference COU makes in our childrens’ lives, looking at how much better dressed they are then their neighbors, and seeing the hordes of undersupervised children in need of care.
When I realize how long I spent traveling (and how much money spent on bus fares) I wonder what makes these visits “worth it.” Maybe it was the smiles on their faces, or the surprise when they realized who the “important visitor” was, or just the chance to see little kids growing up. The visits definitely WERE worth it, traffic jams and back roads and all.
Please support our children at http://firstgiving.com/fundraiser/talitha-phillips/2012-tour-of-light ... your gift (before the tour) will be roughly doubled or more (by income on the tour) to support these children for the future.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
In a week there will be 20 children and youth drumming up a storm in training sessions night and day. But at Kiwanga home this week, there are only about 2 dozen people besides staff, and holy cow is it quiet! I wish I'd brought my guitar with me, it would help liven things up a bit.
At Children of Uganda we prefer that the children under our care not spend their whole lives in an institution, so during school holidays we encourage all children to visit family. Despite the strong nets of extended family in Uganda, there are some who simply have no one, and they spend holidays here at Kiwanga. The other residents are members of Philip's House, who live with severe disabilities and are cared for here. And a few recent graduates of our program are here while they look for what to do next. Our resident sculptor, Ben, is one of these. He whiles away the time making amazing art. I walked out the first morning I was here, and wondered who the other muzungu (white person) was. For some reason it didn't occur to me ask why she was reading a book to an ostrich and a llama...
Agriculture is booming here, with a very successful poultry project to boot. Here Henry (a Philip's House resident) carefully waters his dodo (amaranth) and tomato plants.
Midway through his education he took a very unexpected re-route, and by now he is almost done with his training to be a hairdresser and fashion designer. Here he is plaiting some new braids for a friend - a two-day task.
I was overjoyed to see my old friend Joseph here.
Immaculate has stolen everyone's hearts, so I'll just chime in with the choir: this girl is amazing. She is the youngest of our children with no known relatives... she was raised by her older brother until last year when she came to our program. She arrived sullen and shy but you wouldn't believe it by now. She is absolutely blossoming under the care of the organization. Some times I feel bad for her - the youngest of this group, hanging around all day with no one silly or patient enough to play "monkey" for hours at a time with her - but I take a moment to remember where she came from. I realize that this environment (which would be seen as horribly boring to most American kids) is far more nurturing and loving than any place she's been in before. I realize that she is flourishing and growing in it, simple as it may be.
Gratitude for the day: singing praise songs (by popular demand) with all the Philips House members, plus Immaculate and one of the staff's children in my lap. Some of the Philip's House members have disabilities that affect their voices, and others just seem to mimic their peers' speech patterns, resulting in a whole group of people communicating primarily in vowels without consonants. Immaculate's sweet and clear voice combined with my voice and the heartfelt howls of the Philip's House members for an unforgettable sound. Between songs everyone would clamor for attention, pulling on my hands and sleeves and skirt, with needs and wants of utmost urgency (though they were to be forgotten as soon as I came up with another song). I could stay there forever, endlessly trying to meet everyone's attention needs, but I am trying to give without running dry. The Luganda words for "stop" and "please wait" came back to my brain in a flash of brilliance. Plus the words for "this has been wonderful, but I am going to bed now." Which, now, I shall do.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Mary's belly is stretched to the limit and we are expectant.
I am expectant as can be, as I pack and sort and do crazy amounts of work getting ready to go to UGANDA and to pick up Children of Uganda (COU)'s dance troupe, starting their US tour on Jan 8th.
Advent is a time of strain - of living in the in-between - sure of hope, yet not tangible yet. One can never be sure. Yet we are.
I go to Uganda pregnant with hope, stressed to the max, and sure that when Children of Uganda make it to the US that hearts and lives will be changed. They changed me, when i met them as a teenager. I wish such blessings on you all as well, which is why I'm bringing them there to meet you =)
Saturday, December 3, 2011
My sister and I went to Uganda hoping for some personal, spiritual benefits. We’d abandoned the numbing American culture of consumption, and we hoped for a pure experience of important and passionate service. Instead we found a bewildering maze of questions. Why do poor people spend so much money on clothing and hairstyle? A lesson about priorities. Why do we feel like we’re in England every day at tea-time? A lesson about postcolonial culture. Why are there no jobs for talented young graduates? A lesson about global economics.
SFTS helped me sort through many of the big questions. Later I ran a summer program for volunteers in Uganda, guided by Dr. Phil Wickeri’s mission class. I also participated in the Muilenberg-Koenig History of Religion Seminar run by Dr. Chris Ocker on the topic of poverty. I was able to learn more about historical approaches to poverty relief, some of which we will try to use in Children of Uganda (I now serve on the Board of Directors).
Children of Uganda (COU) has cared for thousands of children since 1995. All have been affected in some way by the dual scourges of AIDS and poverty that have nearly destroyed Uganda. The adult generation has virtually disappeared; today, half of Uganda’s population is under the age of fifteen. There are 8 million children identified as “orphans and vulnerable children,” and only 11% of them are receiving any outside aid. About 500 are currently in the care of COU. It’s a fragment of the total need, but every tiny bit counts.
COU’s public face is our dancers. From kindergarten on, all COU children receive training in the Ugandan traditions of music and dance. With the adult generation decimated, many of these traditions were nearly lost. But we know and value the power of music to transform suffering, to encourage and uplift, and to maintain a sense of cultural pride. Every few years COU brings the most talented dancers to the US as ambassadors for Uganda’s orphan population. I saw the Tour of Light as a teenager, and the children’s infectious joy was life-changing. I look forward to assisting with the next tour in January 2012. I lie awake at night dreaming of this tour and the lives it may change.
I often am told “you’re so passionate.” I am quick to repeat the lesson I learned: Passion is not something you can choose - not a value add-on to your otherwise lovely life. Passion is something that gets inflicted on you. An orphan child asks “can I call you mum?” and suddenly you no longer have the privilege of ignoring global injustice. The price of food in East Africa is suddenly a live and pressing issue. And so you find yourself setting up a table somewhere, holding out your hands, saying “can I tell you about Uganda?” and asking otherwise comfortable people to sponsor children in need. No matter what else I may do in my life, I can never leave this work behind.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
My sister was in Haiti recently and wrote a beautiful blog here. Among her observations was the immense problem of NGOs in Haiti. Yes, that is, the problem of too many people trying to help. She asks simple questions: "If 80% of Haiti is unemployed, what is a team of Americans doing building houses for them?" and... "why isn't there any chicken breast available for dinner?"
You may have heard about the way the US/World Bank/IMF requirements ended up flooding Haiti with rice from Arkansas in 1991, or the situation with Montsanto's "gift" of genetically modified corn (Haitian farmers overwhelmingly rejected it because it would contaminate local seed supplies and reduce farmers' ability to support themselves for the next year by saving seeds from their crop). You would think we would learn not to mess with other folks' agriculture. But we like sending food to starving children, so we donate to the organizations that continue to flood foreign economies with American food. And, we like our crop subsidies, so we like to keep farmers overproducing here.
Cassie writes: "Last night I learned that the US sends left-over dark meat to Haiti, since we eat a disproportionate amount of white meat. The cheap prices take away any incentive to raise chickens for sale in Haiti. I've eaten drumsticks for dinner the past two nights."
Think on that when you eat your white meat. Check the supermarket: with the exception of whole birds for sale, there are many more chicken breasts than drumsticks for sale, are there not? By purchasing only the best meat, we choose a system that dumps inferior meat on countries that will take it, destroying their ability to feed, employ, and empower themselves.
I am preparing for a trip to Uganda, and let this be foremost in my mind: to do no harm in your helping.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
The news went out in our newsletter today... I will not be working at Montclair Presbyterian next year. I've been working at this wonderful, wonderful church for nearly a year and a half, first with youth and children, then with the grownups. I've had a lot of joy there, in singing and Godly-playing, studying and dancing and counseling. However, the job description is changing. I worked quarter time, third-time, then half time, but as of January it's going to full-time, and it will include all of the previous areas I've worked in - and then some.
I applied for the full time job, interviewed with much trepidation, and spent a lot of time wondering, quite angstily, whether I could live up to the high expectations of this job. So when I was told that the committee was pursuing another candidate, I actually breathed a sigh of relief. It's not the right fit, and I'm glad we all know that. It sounds like they really wanted me to be the right person for the job, and it took a lot of discernment on their part as well as mine to come to the realization that this just isn't the right job for me.
I'm sad to be leaving the church. They are a wonderful set of people and as I said, I've had great joys in this job. However I know I'll still find a way to keep in touch, whether as a guest musician or just as a friend. Recently I've had jealousy of those folks who can just be "part of" a church without taking leadership. It looks like so much more fun. Maybe I'll be able to slip in, every once in a while, as a person who's just here... just a part of things... not in the middle of it all. That might not be easy, but I'm going to try my darndest to disappear from the limelight and just be happy to be a part of things.
Up next? Children of Uganda's Tour of Light, of course -- the biggest thing I've ever done in my life. I'll be in Uganda prepping the dance troupe from December 10th to January 8th, then we begin our great 7-week tour of the US. After that, I'll finally put some long-overdue work into my thesis, and apply for CPE programs at local hospitals (clinical pastoral education, otherwise known as emotional boot camp for pastors). Or maybe just sail away and sing sea chanteys for a living. It'll be an adventure.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Moderator Cindy Bolbach came to SFTS today, preached in chapel, and joined us for lunch. She's fun and funny... I appreciated her sermon and especially her mention of a quote from Fredrick Beuchner: "I don't go to church that often any more because I don't experience God there." While empathizing with that, she suggested: maybe we don't necessarily go to church to have an experience of God. It's awesome when the experience happens, but maybe we go to church to help others experience God, or to meet people who have experienced God, and to be strengthened and supported by one another. Maybe we go to punch holes in the roof and let our friends down on mats so they can experience God.
These thoughts hit close to something I've been wondering about a lot recently... Why does working in a church feel so different from being part of a church? One is, I know, because we don't form the same kinds of friendships when we have a professional role dividing us from those we spend so much time with. But also I know that we see the dark underbelly of Church when we work for her... the ruts of old thinking, the stress and the burnout, the necessity to work constantly to make sure the roof is watertight (thus keeping us from letting our friends down on mats to see Jesus!)
Brian McLaren hits the nail on the head in this article on Patheos. Let's make churches more like seminaries. Moderator Bolbach said that young pastors are one of the places she sees the most hope for the church. Well, those young pastors are going to burn out before they get to be in a place to have much to say, unless church becomes more like the inclusive and stimulating communities we know from seminary.
One cheerful postlude: thank God for social media. At graduation, seminarians are generally scattered far and wide, and the precious community support that we had at seminary is ripped out from under us. EXCEPT FOR ON FACEBOOK! Dear seminary friends, you will never be defriended, because our connections are the kind I need, to keep trying to do this Church thing with all its stresses.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Children of Uganda is still working on closing our budget gap for the tour, however. If you can keep our fundraising in your prayers over the next week it would be greatly appreciated.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Monday, October 10, 2011
(1) a life
(2) time to think about your life.
I have SUCH a life right now, a wonderful life, full to bursting with great people and sea chanteys and beautiful places and work and love and city and passion.
...But I have next to nil on #2. Lately I've had to come up with tactics to slow myself down, to forcibly stop myself from working at 10 PM on a weekend. I've improved on that... Still no time to think about life though.
That's all for now
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Monday, August 22, 2011
An example from a recent sorta-sick-day:
Terra: What are you doing today?
me: Resting. Napping. I'm kinda sickish.
Terra: Are you sure? Because it looks a lot like you're fundraising, and I'm pretty sure there's a difference between napping and fundraising.
(Yes, I'm still fundraising. Because it doesn't count as "work" when you care this much about it, and because Ugandan school fees wait for nobody. more.)
I worked hard all weekend, led a very fun group of teens and parents to volunteer on a farm, spent hours digging up potatoes in rocky soil, brought the kids to a water park, got home near midnight, played jazz bass at church, picked up a friend from the airport, went out for coffee, and finally someone asked me "how are you" and I said "I don't know unless I sit down, and I haven't sat down in days." Then I sat down and my body let go of all the forcing, pushing, stressing adrenaline, and relaxed into its true self, and I realized I felt awful.
GUESS WHAT. I can't be a successful fundraiser unless I let myself chill out and heal. I can't be a successful pastoral-care-giver unless I rest enough to not be yawning and sneezing all over the cared-for. I preach this to others: put on your own oxygen mask first. Mom can't feed her babies unless she's feeding herself. Etc. I wrote a WHOLE ARTICLE about it on the more professional blog I write. But right now the preacher needs preached-to.
Today I'm going to sit on the couch and do those mind-numbing things that normal people usually do to relax, like watching TV and reading novels. Fundraising doesn't count as relaxing today. In order to live in the real world (later) I need to spend a day away from it (now). But the temptations to do meaningful activities are huge, so if any of you have advice on how to trick yourself into forcibly resting, I'm all ears.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
So there I was, one little table among many. Every table was a noble cause, from greening your electric bill to sharing free food... from healing massage to creative self-actualization through hula hooping. Even the coffee table had $1 books (of the meaningful variety) for sale as well. My table was next to a bunch of poets and "spiritual artists" selling their wares and trying to revolutionize the publishing industry. I stood there alone and prayed that my cause would not be overlooked.
Can I tell you about the orphan crisis in Uganda? 3.5 million orphans in a country the size of Oregon?
Can I tell you about transforming lives through music and dance? Our upcoming performance tour?
Can I tell you how to make a difference for the most vulnerable? Right here and now?
I sold lots of necklaces, received donations from a child's $1 on up, signed someone up for our mailing list, and met a fellow Uganda-loving muzungu (white person) who spent three years there making a documentary. Not all the conversations were profound. Many people were unwilling to engage farther than their eyes -- "those are pretty." I let them go on as they wished. But still I stood there, stretching out my prayers if not my arms, looking deeply into the swirl of noble causes and playful families, asking God and the universe and all the good vibes to rain down some blessings on Children of Uganda.
About five in the afternoon my energy flow started to run dry. I'd had some free organic ice cream but it didn't kick me back into gear. What I needed was the energy that comes from talking to people who actually care, but the crowds were thinning. Besides, the stilt dancers were commanding most of the festivalgoers' attention by the stage. So I packed up and got my bike from the valet. Coasted downhill to San Anselmo with that clean feeling that comes from accomplishing a goal. I felt Heard. Somehow I knew my prayers had been answered.
Sunday, June 19, 2011
All right folks, here we are and it’s Trinity Sunday, and that means we won’t have a LOT to do with the Bible today. The word “trinity” is found in the bible exactly zero times. It’s a post-Biblical concept.
Suzanne read a blessing – since I missed it I bet some of you did too so I’ll read the last words again: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” That is about as much as we get. “Christ, God, and Holy Spirit.” There’s also a Commission in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples to go out into the world baptizing people in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And there is also a funny little verse way back in the beginning of it all, where God says “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
The bible has some scraps and pieces of information that helped us to come to an understanding of God. And on the surface, the Trinity just looks like an organizational tool: condensing and aligning three important stories about God.
But what’s interesting is that when we put the three stories together, we get another story – a story about relationships. A parent loving a child, a child trusting that parent. One person starting some work, and giving it to another to finish. Three people working for a common goal, living in harmony and unity. A Trinity is a unity of three. Not a hierarchy, with Father on top and Spirit at the bottom – a unity of three equals. A community.
It’s all a bit ridiculous, of course. God’s not a person. God doesn’t have hands and feet, or a gender, or a brain. For that matter, then, God does not have three brains, and six hands. And God is certainly NOT two old men and a ghost.
Sometimes we try to come up with alternate wording for the Trinity. Mother, Child, and Womb has been suggested… works for some, doesn’t for others… Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is a great old standby, but it sounds a little bit as if it’s just one person with three hats, three things to do. I could go out and get three part-time jobs, but that wouldn’t make me a Trinity. And when we just describe God’s tasks, we run the risk of abstracting God. The Trinity is three particular stories – not a set of abstractions.
As abstractions go, there are way too many ideas floating around that would have God be, by definition, the top of a hierarchy. God would be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnicompetent – all the omni’s – a solitary monarch, high up on a throne in the clouds, with no need to interact with anything else except maybe to squash something or smite someone.
Guess what. That’s not God. That’s a monster.
Images of God matter – because no matter how you believe you were created, we all do re-create ourselves in the image of the God we believe in. If we believe God is authoritarian and strict, we become rigid and controlling. If we believe God is creative, we give ourselves permission to be playful. We create ourselves in the image of the God we believe in.
What the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that we, also, ought not to be solitary monarchs, power-grabbers looking for a nice high throne. On the contrary, God’s image, in which we are created, is interdependence among equals, with hospitality for one another.
Today I want to share with you some images of this Triune God…
God looked down at her hands. Muddy from a day’s work, molding mountains. But it sure was fun work. Watching continental plates crash oh-so-slowly together, keeping a look out for volcanos, opening little springs of water that would cut into the face of the mountains. She could play with this stuff forever and never get tired. She loved watching a mountain stream clean out everything in its way, leaving bare rocks uncovered beneath it. She loved the sharp crags that turned into bright snowcaps, and she loved the green foothills with their soft gentle curves.
God had just recently brought mammals into being, and she loved watching them, wondering where each new species would find its home. She watched as they changed her mountains, the goats eating shrubs down to the stem, the beavers turning streams into ponds. She was wondering what to do about the erosion on a hill that the buffalo had just overgrazed… but she had plenty of time to see about that.
What God really wanted to do next was to work on that new creature. She was going to create it from the soil of the ground, and she had picked a terrific spot to dig that up. Fertile, reddish, rich and damp soil. She knew it was going to be a wonderful creation. She turned the dirt over and over in her hands, kneading it like clay, playing with different shapes. “In Our image,” God mused, “according to our likeness.” She made two legs and laughed out loud as they started twisting and kicking. She made an arm and pushed it in where the shoulder should be – and the little dirt creature pushed back. This was definitely more fun than molding mountains. She made the head and eyes and nose, and used her fingernail to slice a little mouth open. Immediately a flood of speech burst out – “Hey God, why didn’t you make me another arm? The kneecaps are really sticking out, don’t you think that’s poor planning if I fall? Hey, God, I also had an idea about that mountain over there. It’s too steep on the north side….”
God quickly put her thumb on the groundling’s mouth and held it there until she had made it some ears.
When the groundling’s body was complete it said “great! Can you let me down now and let me start fixing things around here?” … but God knew that one creature could never contain the Divine Image by itself. She put the first groundling to sleep while she fashioned a second. Soon they would create another, and God’s threefold image would begin.
God looked down at his hands. They were tied in thick rope and scratched where Pilate’s soldiers had so roughly handled him. He knew that this earthly adventure was coming up to a finale of some sort. He struggled to stay awake in the early morning cold, knowing that he could be called in for his trial at any time. Even in the quiet of his cell he could tell that outside, the drumbeat of the crowd’s frenzy was getting faster and faster.
Ever since Jesus had seen the groundling push back in the Creator’s hands, he had known that there was hard work ahead. He knew that it had been a risk all along to create such powerful and free creatures as humans… but even more, now, he knew that it was a risk to keep loving them. Of course he could abdicate responsibility at any time. He could deny his love for these hurting and hurtful people, call it quits, call in some angels, break the ropes tying him like Samson, fly out of the court before everyone’s watching eyes – but then he wouldn’t have shown people what it is to be fully human.
Jesus almost couldn’t stand it when miracles happened at his hands. Yes, he wanted to see people healed and changed and living new lives, and he was grateful when this happened – but when the crowd saw a miracle, they’d go ooh and aah as if it had been fireworks, and they would be clapping too loud to hear when he said “you could do this too. Your heavenly Father will hear you when you ask.”
It was sad to see people walking around like slaves, wasting their potential – when they were made in the image of God! Even his disciples so rarely understood. He’d say “no – you can do it too – just step out on the water with me –” but then they’d bow down and worship him, which was the last thing he wanted. He wanted them to join him, not put him on a pedestal.
He was working up a little sermon in his mind. Maybe if he’d explain it this way they’d get it: “To be fully human is to be a reflection of God. All that I have comes directly from God, because I just don’t get in the way. If you trust God, you can do anything!”
Who was he kidding? His chance of getting to preach one more time was about the same as his chance of getting a fair trial.
Well, he would have no miracles, today. He was here to show people what it meant to be a child of God, to truly bear God’s image, to love until the end. No tricks, no gimmicks. His hands would stay bound until someone untied them.
God looked down at her hands. They were cradling a small child in a hospital bed, and although none of the grownups in the room had managed to catch sight of them, God was finally satisfied that the child knew her hands were there. The Spirit’s hands were so hard to see, of course. Even when someone did see them, so often they’d chalk it up to coincidence or just good luck. Intuition often took the credit, as if intuition weren’t just one part of being created in God’s image. But it didn’t matter much to Spirit, as long as hatred was changed to love, despair to hope, sorrow to joy, darkness to light. That was her work, and there was a lot of work to do in this room today. The child was actually the most open to the Spirit, and was settling down peacefully to prepare for surgery, but the parents were distraught to the point that almost no consolation could seep through their fear. God wrapped each one of the parents in a blanket of trust and hoped that they’d take it in. Then she winged a quick dose of graciousness to the doctor, whose first reaction to the parents would have otherwise been “calm DOWN already,” and a measure of serenity to the hospital chaplain. She reminded the nurses of the gentleness within them, and gave the anaesthesiologist a extra burst of cheerfulness. Routine stuff, really. None of it was beyond the scope of ordinary human life. But ordinary human life is all in the image of God. Today God knew that she might go completely unnoticed, even by the chaplain. A few minutes ago she had been midwifing with a fearful new mother… empowering a janitor who needed to stand up for his rights… and inspiring a young and starry-eyed nursing student. None of them gave her the credit… mostly they’d forgotten that they had a spirit of any kind within, much less a divine spirit. But it didn’t matter, as long as her work was being done.
God looked down at God’s hands, held in a circle around the dinner table. Of course when you’re God you don’t technically need to say prayers before dinner. But they had a habit of gathering like this, expressing gratitude to one another, enjoying one another’s presence and sharing a meal. There was laughter today, Jesus had knocked over a chair in his typical human clumsiness. There was deep love expressed, great admiration for one another, and a willingness to pitch in and help where the other one needed it. How lonely it would be to do all this alone… with no one to laugh with you, cry with you, and suffer the pain of loving with you. How hard it would be to do this dance alone.
Take a moment and look down at your own hands, created in the image of God. I wonder what work they will do… whose hands they will hold… whose tears they might wipe away… what they will create.
Take a moment and look at this icon. It is an old and famous picture of the Trinity…. I want to draw your attention to one thing about this picture. Look -- at how the circle is not closed. There is space at this table for you. The Trinity is not a closed community – it is open-ended and hospitable. You are invited in, to share, to feast, to work, and to dance with the members of the Trinity. Bring your work to the table – bring your fears, your sorrows, your joys. And then reach back out of the circle, and take someone else’s hand to bring them in. We belong to one another, and we belong to God.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Last week, in a burst of courage, I emailed my doctor saying "don't you think my ankle is taking, oh, well, just a little bit too long in healing? It having been a year already?" and he emailed back "yes" and within an hour a podiatrist called me saying "could you come in for an appointment in an hour?"
(Kaiser Permanente definitely has the internal communications down pat. Thumbs up for that, KP!)
So I went in, trembling, and grateful that I hadn't had more than a minute or two to think about what might actually be wrong with my ankle. Because, well, my ankle was last year's problem - I was done learning from that mistake. Sometime last winter the physical therapist dismissed me to self-scheduled aftercare, and said it'll be slow but sure. So I filed "ankle" in the back of my brain, settled into the self-abnegating practice of Holy Patience, and simply postponed everything I wanted to do, like hiking Mt. Bald, and Mt. Tam, and Tennessee Valley, and the AIDS walk.
I'd learned a lot of spiritual lessons, of course, like grace and humility and new priorities. So many lessons, in fact, that my ankle seemed to be, by now, not much more than a collection of Ideas and Learnings, of Humblings and Challenges. The ankle had ceased to be anything much like an ankle. I no longer thought of it in terms of leaps, or turns, or waltzes, or climbs. I'd even stopped thinking of it in terms of ligaments or tendons, strength or stretch.
It took some good friends and family members to gently push me and say, basically, "you deserve to have a working ankle." I went ahead and emailed the doctor, all but assuming he would answer "You're not spiritual enough. Practice patience." So it was scary when he agreed - "yes you deserve a working ankle."
My ankle is Not Okay, and if the steroid treatment doesn't loosen scar tissue, I could need surgery. That's scary.
What's scarier is to think about how quickly I shut myself up, shut myself off, denied myself the hope of a healthy ankle, and sanctified it under the name of the virtue - Holy Patience.
Impatience is holy too. Check out some psalms. That's the virtue I need to practice today. Today I need to push, demand, stand up for myself, and stop apologizing for the air I breathe. I need to know that I am good enough to deserve healing, and that, being a paying KP member, I am entitled to a doctor's care. Maybe I'll even get brave enough to ask God for some healing, although I'll have to get over the hurdle of wanting not to take up God's precious time.
Today I invite you to take a look at whatever it is you consider a virtue... and wonder about its counterpart. Could the opposite be a virtue, too? Patience - Impatience. Humility - Pride. Diligence - Playfulness.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
I’m talking about those cans and boxes in your pantry. Yes, you. Your little Annie’s Mac & Cheeses, lentil soups, refried beans, ricearonis, whatever it is you store up. Theologically dangerous. Yes, I said it. Watch out.
I wouldn't counsel utter foolishness, of course. I know a good deal when I see one. As a matter of principle I won’t say no to 75% off. And certain places can really get me going. When I’m house shopper (we divide it up – one person to the farmer’s market, one to TJ’s, one to Safeway) I find it much harder to shop at Safeway than the farmers’ market. At the farmer’s market, you look around and see what’s good, and guess how much a hungry household will eat in a week, and I almost never have a problem with going over budget. We can only eat so much in a week. At Safeway I’m constantly tempted. They know how my brain works. They offer 50% off sales, or even worse, they say “buy one get one FREE” and my brain sees “free” and says “well it would be a sin to leave that to go to waste, I’d better help them out here.” I end up spending way over the weekly budget and we end up with stacks and stacks of 60-percent-off pasta. We eat it, eventually, of course.
There is a theological side of this story. Ellen Davis talks about the “manna economy” of the desert, and the “empire economy” of Egypt. When the Israelites were enslaved, they looked around and saw silo after huge silo of stored grain. They may not have had direct access to it, but it was there in case of famine, courtesy of Pharoah’s food policy programs. In the desert it was the polar opposite – their manna was not physically capable of being stored. It would rot overnight. Forget building a silo – you'd have to live day to day. The manna story shows the economic implications of relying on your food directly from the hand of God – if there is no storing it up, there is no taxing it either, or running an overpriced supply chain out of Pharoah’s silos. Everyone gets what they need - no more, no less.
The manna economy does not come easily in the real world. We are keepers, storers, hoarders - and recently TV shows have shown us the dark underside of that strain that runs through our culture. It is not that unusual for people to have cans in their closet that end up expiring before they can eat them all – because so many sales have convinced them they absolutely MUST take this cheap little can of food home with them, store it up, feel secure against potential disasters.
It’s a funny philosophy… to think that God would somehow love the perishable food more than the imperishable… and might even want us to face the world without a prudent reserve… but it must come from something like the same theology that says “blessed are the poor” and other such backwards things.
What is your personal food theology? What does your pantry or fridge say about your relationship to God? Or have you intellectualized it out of that realm completely?
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The Greek word has the sense of “scandal” in the sense of something offensive. But it also has the very concrete meaning of something which causes others to trip and fall. A “stumbling block,” if you will. My housemates don’t necessarily feel hurt if I say I’m scandalized by them – Jesus was scandalous too (1 Cor 1:23) – and still is a stumbling block to many.
Food is a scandalous subject, laden with cultural assumptions. Any new vegan who has gone home at Christmas knows this. What, Grandma’s roast isn’t good enough for you? Whattayawant, anyway? It goes the other way, too – try asking for a burger in a vegan household. We are scandalized by one another’s choice in food.
In a great passage of 1 Corinthians 8, Paul talks about food choices. The choice, in those days, was whether to eat meat (slaughtered in pagan temples) or to be vegetarian (hence not touching idol-tainted meat). My anti-vegetarian friends love to quote this one because it says “those whose conscience is weak eat only vegetables.” Paul was NOT putting us vegetarians down, though. His point is that those who are fully convinced that there is no such thing as a god other than God will not be upset by eating pagan meat. Paul is in that category. He has no moral qualms about meat. However, he is VERY careful not to scandalize his friends.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.”… It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
To me, another question comes up. What about the members of our family who are workers in meatpacking plants? Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous jobs around, due to the speed of the line and the risk of disease. Or what about the members of our family who pick pesticide-laden crops, day after day? Would they be scandalized if they saw us carelessly eating the cheap burgers and strawberries for which they labor? If they saw us preaching “we are all one in the family of God” on Sunday, and saying “$2/pint is way too much for strawberries” on Monday? If we sin against these brothers and sisters, we sin against Christ.
Next time you complain about the price of food, think about the brother or sister (for whom Christ also died) who grew, harvested, processed, or served you the food. If they food should be cheap - are they worthless too? What does your theology say? What does your budget say?
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Idealism gets a bad rap. A bunch of us well-meaning community gardeners and other such rabble were on a Presbyterian Hunger Program webinar recently, talking about the Manna Economy, and the desert experience which taught Israel how to eat. In this economy, and in stark contrast to Egypt, food is gathered locally rather than stored in huge silos, each family has what they need, no more, no less, and there is no way to exploit another by stealing their food. You can only eat what comes down from the sky each day. You get your food from the hand of God.
Beautiful stuff. But it's idealistic, so we shove it aside. No one wants to be called idealistic. A fate worse than rotten tomatoes. Pie in the sky dreamers? No thanks. We want to be realists, grounded in cruel, cold, reality, because it will make us strong and Correct.
BUT GUESS WHAT. THE BIBLE IS IDEALISTIC.
Take a look at this zinger of a passage: Deuteronomy 15
At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.
I will contend that God, too, MUST be idealistic - if she's rash enough to say something like "no one should have to be poor."
Hear that? Bible says. No one should have to be poor. If you follow God's ways, even that ridiculous idea of "canceling all debt" every seven years, each of you will be protected from falling into desperation. If you eat what falls out of the sky into your outstretched hands each day, and remember the rhythms of Sabbath, you will not go hungry. If you use the land gently, remembering who your divine Landlord is, you will not face deprivation.
Be ye idealistic. Believe that God has a positive vision for this world, where no one is poor. Take part in building that world. Allow God's gentle grace in, to take the place of that cruel and cold "realism." What is really real is in God, and God is an idealist - hallelujah for that!
Thursday, April 28, 2011
But read more. Listen carefully because this is a difficult one. There are differences of opinion, philosophical debates, historical analysis, and a lot of hyperlinks going into this entry. How DO you help Ugandan orphans?
Unicef estimates as many as 3.5 million children have lost parents in Uganda. Half the population is under the age of 18, due to HIV/AIDS and other diseases, civil unrest, and the ravages of poverty. There are as many people (very young and very old) in need of direct care as there are working-age people capable of supporting them. Statistically this is hugely crippling for Uganda's chance at ever escaping poverty.
In one great class at SFTS this semester we have been looking into the question of poverty. Where does it come from, why is it here, does it help our society somehow? What's the moral quality of poverty - something to be desired, or to flee from? Can one (& should one) voluntarily impoverish oneself as a spiritual benefit? And what about helping? What do we DO? Governmental payments? Entitlement systems? Licensed begging? Church charity? NGOs? International efforts?
It's a dizzying array of uncertainty. Some propose that we can't fix the problems of poverty, but we ought to alleviate them as a good work for the sake of our own souls. Some propose that we CAN fix it, once and for all - but can't agree on how to do it.
States and churches have differed through the centuries as to how to take care of orphans. In some times and places they are taken into institutions for care, but sometimes they are sent out to relatives with a stipend for their care. In Uganda today there are different models among the NGOs. Some run a school for needy children, some simply pay for them to go to boarding school (not an uncommon educational model in Uganda). Some, alternatively, create alternative families - find a widow to be surrogate mom for a bunch of kids - and subsidize their living. Some create scholarships for the most talented, and some take in the neediest regardless of their academic promise. Some just provide microcredit for the adult relatives, and hope the wealth trickles down to the kids.
I have to admit that I do not know which is most effective. I simply have no idea. And there may be no one right answer. You can criticize charity , or look at microfinance critically, or take down the whole bleeding lot with sharp questions. My favorite quote from that last article is Esther Duflo comparing the entire range of aid work (from goodwilled volunteers to the World Bank) to "medieval doctors with leeches. We have no idea what we're doing."
With all this swimming around in my head, one way through it would be to call it all quits, take an intellectual chill pill, and focus on something closer to home. That might seem like the easy way out. But in fact it would be impossibly hard for me to bury my head that far beneath the sand. Even if I de-friended all my Ugandan friends on facebook, they'd get to me in my dreams.
Here are the facts. I support an orphanage - COU - Children of Uganda - because the children captured my heart (on a US tour, and later when I volunteered there), and because I cannot give up on them.
I know that bandages do not cure illnesses,
but I know that lack of bandages is a direct cause for infection.
I know that kids going to school does not solve the problems of the Ugandan economy, but I know that kids being out of school is a huge risk factor for them in terms of HIV infection, and that a small cash handout can keep them safe for at least a few more years (read a study here). I know that I cannot fix the world for the children I love, but I know that maize prices have risen astronomically this year and that if we don't keep the money coming for their support, these children will be the first to go without food. And right now I am fundraising. If you visit my fundraising page you can help me reach my goal of $3,000 this month. The necessary food and tuition fees will not wait for us, while we wonder which charity methods are most effective. The children need food, now.
Please consider how far your $10 donation can go, to cover the basic needs of a child who has nothing.
** For those who are curious about those various models and philosophies of aid, I'll say that COU covers a lot of bases. We run our orphanage for the youngest grades (primary school) like a boarding school, so they receive specialized care from experienced "aunties" and house mothers. We send older students to boarding schools. We have special incentives for the most gifted students (academically or musically), but we also care for the mentally disabled. We send most of the children back out to their extended families during school holidays, so that no one forgets what it's like to live in a family setting. We also work with the people of the village, supporting a women's cooperative by buying their goods, and providing educational opportunities and agricultural training to locals. We try to do everything we can.
childrenofuganda.org and my fundraising page
thanks for reading!
Monday, April 25, 2011
The fifth word – “I thirst.”
Calvary Presbyterian San Francisco, Good Friday 2011.
John 19:28-29: After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said to fulfill the scripture, “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there. So they put a sponge full of vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth.
The word of the Lord
The living water is thirsty.
The light of the world has gone dark.
The true vine is withering.
The bread of life is hungry.
The resurrection is bleeding.
The true life is dying.
The king is enthroned - on an electric chair. The priest, dressed in his sanctified, seamless tunic – is stripped of that holy garment and sacrificed alongside the passover lambs. The sky has gone dark in the middle of the day. The world is upside-down.
The living water is thirsty.
And this is hard because I need some living water, and I don’t think I have any water of my own to bring him. Unlike the Samaritan woman at the well, I have no bucket. Or, well, I had one, but it’s at the bottom of the well because I was at the end of my rope and the rope just broke. I’m hot; I’m tired; my mouth is dried up like a leaf. I won’t last much longer. I need that living water. But now the living water is thirsty, and asking me for help.
The bread of life is hungry.
And this is hard because we are hungry. We were born hungry. We have been hungry our whole lives. We have done everything we can to stop the hunger. Sometimes we have found healthy, and life-giving bread to satisfy our desires. Sometimes we have found doritos and beer, and we crammed them in because we were longing for sustenance, but we wound up hungrier than ever before. We’re so hungry we can’t even sort out which is the true hunger, and which is a shallow craving. We hunger, we long, and we need that bread of life. But now the bread of life is hungry, and asking us for help.
Not so many days ago, Lazarus was in the tomb, and we all wept and wailed, and thought there was no answer to our grief. Jesus arrived and showed his glory. The light of the world shone into the tomb, darkness was transformed into amazing light, and our doubts fell away in an instant. Our deepest desire was satisfied, and we celebrated as if it were a wedding feast. But now we are grieving, inconsolable, wanting our loved one back, yearning with all our hearts for this not to be goodbye. We are longing for comfort, longing for a word of assurance. (reach out ) Longing for an answer – if he would only come and speak to us –
But now the living water is thirsty, the bread of life is hungry, and the answer to our problems is asking us for help.
Jesus was always the one who answered a question with another question. Sometimes it was cryptic but lighthearted. Like a riddle. He’d say “I am going away, and you cannot follow.” We’d say “what are you talking about?” and he’d say, “You are from below, I am from above.” We’d ask a question… about the blind man, “whose fault is it that he was born blind?” and Jesus would say, “we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” What a great puzzle. When asked where to find food for five thousand people, Jesus would say “why don’t you just give them something to eat?” Jesus gave us very few answers. He gave us a lot of questions. And this is the hardest question of all – as he hangs on the cross, he says “I am thirsty.” He wants – he needs - He asks for help. Nothing big. Just some spare change. A little water to moisten his mouth. The Lord of heaven and earth is asking us for the scraps falling off our table. Our Lord is asking us to have mercy on him.
At the cross we see the face of our vulnerable God. And that’s hard, because we want God to be strong for us. We come to God with our thirst and hunger, longing for justice and for bread, and we want God to answer our questions, to satisfy our needs, and to put a stop to the endless wanting, aching, yearning pain of life as we know it. We would really like God to be the one who fixes it all.
We come to the cross with our needs, longing to be satisfied. We don’t get an answer. And we will not be satisfied here. But we get a new question, and we get transformed. We thought we were to be the recipients, but suddenly we see we could be the givers. I thought I was the enemy, but I heard Jesus asking for help – and look, it’s right within my reach – some of this common wine, and a little stick to put the sponge on – we find that we CAN relieve his thirst.
We have always found God in the blessing. We know God is there when we are healed, or satisfied, or answered somehow. Today we find God in the question, God in the wanting, God in the thirst. Today may we open up to an even deeper thirst. May we welcome in the pain of longing for justice, for wholeness, for light and life. May we also be thirsty. Amen.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
An orderly creation is characterized by clear demarcations and separations. God separated the light from the dark, the waters from the land, and the clean from the unclean. The Temple is all about separations; the Gentiles excluded on the outside, the women excluded in one court, non-priestly men kept away one degree by a wall, and finally at the center a curtain to veil God’s presence.
We know that Jesus was in the business of re-drawing those lines of separation, and that many were scandalized because of how he did this – accepting women into table fellowship, extending miraculous work even to the Gentiles, touching the leprous, the unclean, and the dead. We know something about “the veil of the curtain rent in twain” signifying the end to the separation between God and humanity. But we can only wonder about the shaking of the earth. Is there no more distinction between rock and not-rock, between the permanent and the temporary, the animate and inanimate?
The rocks mourned Christ’s death, the sun refused to shine, and creation called loudly for people to pay attention to the tragedy unfolding. But then things returned to normal. Men went back to oppressing women, well-meaning bishops built a new temple and set the curtain back up again, and the rocks sat back and kept their silence.
It’s a cloudy, rainy, mourn-y kind of Holy Week where I am, which helps me to feel appropriately solemn. I have remembered so many years when I wanted to stay in the gloomy mood created by the Scriptures, only to have sunshine and happy birds and all kinds of natural distractions pull me into Easter a day or two early. “Happy” vs. “solemn” is only the tip of the iceberg, though. I wish the earth would re-enact for us the uncreating of creation, as it did at Golgotha. I want to remember the earthquake – the shaking, the un-doing, the erasing of boundaries, and the possibility of truly leaving our walls and dividing curtains behind. We need to be disassembled if we are to be created anew with the risen Christ.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Gratitude is an expression of thanks to someone or something for a benefit given to us, which we did not deserve or earn. Regularly reflecting on gratitude (an activity as simple as keeping a journal, and each night writing down 5 things for which we were grateful that day) has well-documented positive effects on our lives, moods, actions, and health.
Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make music to our God upon the harp.
God covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
God gives food to flocks and herds,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
Gratitude is an important part of our Biblical tradition. If the creation stories of the Bible don’t tell us exactly how the earth was made, they do tell us one important thing: we didn’t make it ourselves. Neither did we do anything to deserve the earth and its richness. We are not entitled to it – we are privileged to enjoy it.
I had a moment of gratitude last weekend. My housemates and I were on retreat, and picnicked by Limantour Beach. We set up a picnic blanket in a relatively grassy spot surrounded by wild douglas irises. We had some oranges, a loaf of bread, almond butter, and two jams. One jam was from Trader Joe’s (blackberry preserves). The other was an apricot preserve. It was made by the elderly mother of an SFTS professor, who harvested the apricot tree in the backyard, sliced, cooked, and canned dozens of jars, and gave us some as a gift. Both jams were delicious. However, only one elicited feelings of gratitude. I was entitled to the blackberry, because I handed a few dollars to the clerk at TJ’s. I had no such claim on Grandma Betty’s Apricot Special.
What are you grateful for today?
What have you received as a gift?
...and I wonder what life would be like if we did less buying and selling, and more giving and receiving.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Jesus is confronted with a question of theodicy: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" His disciples pose it to him, as an intellectual challenge. If you start from the (common) assumption that such afflictions are divine punishment, how can you locate the sin for which a newborn was punished? Talk about a theological puzzle! Does life begin in utero? Do responsibilities and sins begin there, as well? Who wouldn't enjoy a little intellectual sparring over that issue? You could show off your theological prowess and end up with the respect of all.
Jesus, however, declines the question. He refuses to treat this man as an intellectual challenge. His disciples have offered him the throne of judgment, but he steps down and kneels in the dirt instead, making mud, touching the presumed sinner, becoming a caretaker rather than a judge. He treats him as a man - not a "blind man," not a "sinner," but a child of God in whom God's glory is being revealed.
Jesus recently said, "You judge by human standards; I judge no one" (John 8:15). His refusal to judge becomes a judgment - a krisis - a distinction - between his behavior and our own judgmentalism. How often have we treated people as puzzles to be correctly or incorrectly solved? How often have we shown off our knowledge and intellect instead of stepping in as a servant?
And how often has God come down to your level, taken hold of you, and opened your eyes?
prayer: O God, it is so easy for us to live our faith at the intellectual, safe, and thus superior level, rather than living into Christ. Thank you for not staying there with us, but seeking to touch our hearts, our eyes.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Exciting new developments in the world of biotechnology: Cows can now produce human milk. That's right. Read all about it on the UK's Telegraph.
Leaving aside issues of veganism, animal rights, and whether it's really desireable to nurse from other animals, when we were weaned off our human mother's milk decades ago... there are other questions.
Really, the bazillion dollar question is. "Just because we can, should we?"
We know how to do it. Well, sort of. More than half the first batch of genetically modified cows died, for unknown reasons, but that's probably a minor glitch in the system that can be worked out, eh?
We know that there are certain nutrients found in human milk that are lacking in cow's milk and in most baby formulas. For babies in need these are crucial. We can now turn cattle into living factories for essential nutrients. Awesome?
Genetically modifying plants and animals is a whole can of worms. My Material Theology class did a lot of work on debating their merits and dangers. My side (arguing against genetic modification) acted it out: we placed ourselves in a divine council, and God heard arguments against the dangers of GMO agriculture. In our heavenly council, there was an American farmer who had lost his land due to the monopolization process, an Indian farmer whose land was ruined by bad farming practices, and an activist talking about the agricultural-military-industrial complex. Jesus finally took center stage (in a kilt, to keep a bit of a gender balance - this is the GTU after all) and reminded people of the lessons of Job... to which I now turn.
The book of Job is in the genre of wisdom literature. It is a long debate about the merits of various theologies. How can you explain when bad things happen to good people? Job and his friends debate this for 37 long chapters. Then finally God speaks up:
YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
God further interrogates Job - he may know about domestic animals, being a man of many herds and flocks, but is he such an expert on the wild animals?
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
We have plenty of the "words without knowledge." We can talk an endless talk about how we think the world works. Yes, we may understand enough to perform open-heart surgery, and fertilize ourselves in vitro, and drill for oil, but when the next earthquake is coming we really don't know. We can splice the genome apart and together again, but even the best-cared-for pregnancies often miscarry, and no doctor can explain it. We can attack HIV, but we certainly cannot conquer it.
In the face of the wonders created around us, we ought not to stifle our own creativity. But let us never forget the limits of our knowledge. Knowing that there is a God, a power higher than our best intelligence, reminds us to be humble with our creations.
The cows who survive long enough to produce the wonder-milk may have any number of health defects - we simply do not know what we have done to them when we spliced their genes. But for that matter, we choose not to know a lot about animals, as long as they do what we want them. We purposefully ignore the details of their gastrointestinal systems, feeding cattle on corn because it's cheap, and because given the right amount of antibiotics they'll survive anyhow. We know how to manipulate animals to our desires, but we truly do not know, with God's masterful knowledge, what it is that makes them healthy.
God is painted, in Job, as a caring and skillful creator. God is the one who DOES know when a wild deer crouches to give birth, and what a raven needs to eat, how to bring forth grass on the earth, and where the stars travel.
God is the one who truly knows. Let us not be satisfied with the kind of knowledge that gets results, well enough - but let us seek for the true wisdom that God can impart to us through intimate and compassionate ways of living with creation.