Monday, July 15, 2013

Psalm 1. A Sermon.

This summer we are journeying through the Psalms. The Psalms are the book where we most clearly hear the voice of faith, the voice of humans, ancient people, struggling to live their lives with God. Today we are starting at the very beginning, with the first Psalm, which St. Jerome described as, “the entryway to the mansion of the Psalter.” This Psalm sets the stage, it frames what is to come. Today I want to especially focus on the first word of this first Psalm. That word is asher. The word starts with the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In many ways, we are truly at the very beginning. There is no exact English equivalent for this word “asher.” Sometimes it is translated as “happy.” The word “happy” sometimes seems too cheap, too fleeting, a word a child would use to describe a day at the beach. Some prefer the word “blessed,” which sounds more dignified and holiness.

Right from the beginning, this word “happy” causes us some difficulty. Does God even want us to be happy, of all things? The religious path, the Christian path is one of suffering, self-denial, and sacrifice. Right? God wants us to be obedient and submissive. Happiness has to do with pleasure, and the flesh, and all the worldly attachments we’re supposed to surrender to God.

For a while growing up, I attended a church where a lot of folks believed that there was an inverse relationship between God’s happiness, and our happiness. If I was joyful or giggly or exuberant, you could imagine that God would cross God’s arms and purse God’s lips, and look down God’s nose upon me with displeasure. But if I was miserably suffering in uncomfortably restrictive church clothes in a hot church pew then God was - well not exactly happy, but perhaps grinning smugly, God’s lips remaining piously clasped shut.

To be fair, I must note that most of the members of this church were farmers. Which really explains a lot. This picture of God resembled our church janitor, someone who never really saw children, but only chaos-in-the-making, bundles of destructive energy needing to be controlled. I wonder if any of us believe in a church-janitor kind of God? Do we believe in a God who looks at us and sees destruction-in-progress? Does our God believe that our desires and hopes and dreams are raw energy to be contained?

I don’t think many of you picture God in such an extreme way, a God who is shored up by the discomfort of his followers. But maybe there are subtler ways in which you might struggle with the idea that God wants you to be happy. I experienced this very recently. I was struggling with a particular prayer practice. I thought that I had to stick with it and make it work because I had said that I was going to prayer in this particular way. But then I read that, “One of the main tasks of you prayer is to find what suits you, personally” and that what suits you might change through the seasons and years of your life. Well that was a new idea. Maybe I didn’t need to please God by struggling with this particular practice that didn’t suit me. Suddenly I was free to explore a different way of being with God in a different season.

This is one example, but there are many ways we might find it hard to believe that God wants us to be happy because we so often perceive this choice between doing what we want and what God wants. Maybe you heard that to love God you must deny your dreams and hopes and especially your desires in order to obey God. Maybe you believe that the religious path means you stop doing what you like and love to do, and focus on what God wants you to do, even if it makes you miserable. Or maybe when things go wrong you have this troubling suspicion that God is punishing, that God wants you to suffer. Maybe you feel that to be a good Christian, there is a particular part of yourself that is not acceptable. You need to stuff that part of yourself into a shoebox and hide under your bed or in your closet, and will that thing to become smaller and smaller until it disappears.

It may come as a surprise the Psalms, and Psalm 1 in particular are very interested in this question of human happiness, what it means to have a good life. As we have seen, the Psalter opens with that word “asher,” happiness. Now the word is “asher” does not mean a positive feeling state. Asher has to do with the honor and privilege that characterize the people of God. The word “asher” appears throughout the Psalms. The greatest source of “asher” in the Psalms is being in relationship with God, and the different activities and experiences that mark that relationship.

I don’t want to define the meaning of the word “asher,” because I think the best possible definition of the word is Psalm 1 itself. The Psalm opens with both a negative and a positive description of “asher.” Blessed, happy is the one who does not take the advice of the wicked. The specific characteristics of behaviors that characterize the wicked are not identified, but the positive description of the blessed person is more concrete. Asher is the one who meditates on God’s law day and night, careful to live in harmony with God’s intentions. Chewing on and turning over the divine command help this person to better understand God’s wisdom and direct life toward God.

Next the Psalm paints a picture of asher, an image of the prosperity that is the result of keeping God’s law. It is an idyllic scene, a tree planted by streams of water. The tree is a prominent theological image throughout the Hebrew Bible. It recalls the perfection of God’s creation, and the primordial garden where God walked with Adam and Eve. In times of chaos and destruction, the tree is an image of deliverance, of restoration and hope for the future (Isaiah and Ezekiel). The Hebrew Bible often mentions three things in connection with trees: they produce fruit for food, they offer shade from the heat, and they grow branches which become homes for birds. I would add that trees beautify a landscape, and they produce oxygen, and they remind me, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “to go easy, to be filled with life, and to shine.” These are blessings not for the tree itself, but to be enjoyed by a wider community, by a whole ecosystem.

The tree is an image of God’s salvation. The tree suggests slow, steady sources of blessing that may take years and even generations to come into being. It’s about prosperity, but exactly the health-and-wealth message of the prosperity gospel. This prosperity isn’t a personal possession, but a participation in the flourishing that God intends for all people. The salvation promised in Psalm 1 is not about going to heaven or getting saved. It promises that your life can be a source of blessing to everyone around you. You can have the strength to endure life’s storms and times of scarcity. Your life can provide shade for the weary, and fruit for the hungry, and branches where others can be at home. Asher is not a personal state of blessedness, but the stability and fruitfulness of a life that is lived well and is a source of blessing to others.

In contrast the wicked are dried up, lifeless. They are blown about thoughtlessly by the winds of change. Their pattern of living does not take root, it does not grow strong, and it does not offer branches or fruit or shade. Sometimes we believe that God runs around giving presents to reward blind obedience, and shoots down arrows at those who disobey. This is a Santa-Claus-style morality that divides the world into “naughty” and “nice,” rewarding and punishing in turn. I don’t think this is the kind of moral vision Psalm 1 is teaching. The comment that this Psalm makes about the wicked is not that God punishes them, but that their way of living does not last. Disregarding God’s wisdom about how to live well, the wicked do not cultivate that patterns that would help them to grow strong, stable, and fruitful.

We see this with regard to the command to observe the Sabbath. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. The pattern of work and rest was part of God’s creative process. This command is about more than work-life balance. The command teaches us about the nature of reality. Created things are not units of production to be maximized, but gifts of God that give God glory. The pattern teaches that the world, that you and I, are good before we do, produce, or accomplish anything, simply because God made us. Created things have limits. Limits are a hard thing to accept. We are free to ignore the limits. but if we work our bodies and our minds until they are too tired to go on, what will last? Without Sabbath, how will we grow roots or produce fruit? Without rest we will be chaff - dry and brittle - blown about thoughtlessly by the wind.

Sabbath rest is not only for people, but also for animals and for the land itself. The pattern of Sabbath rest teaches us another important truth - created things are not units of production to be maximized, by gifts of God to give glory to God. We can regard the earth as raw material to be exploited, but does such a lifestyle have any staying power? We can ignore that God’s creation is a gift entrusted to our care, but will this path lead to happiness? If we pollute and drill and mine and burn without ceasing, what will last?

This summer we have seen devastating fires in Colorado, Arizona and other parts of the west. Many believe that such fires are increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of changes in our climate. If we hold the newspaper account of these events in one hand, and Psalm 1 in the other hand, the message that emerges is both striking and tragic. As a society we do not practice rest, but pursue habits that push the limits and drive the earth out of balance. We do not observe Sabbath rest, and do not grant it the created things that sustain us. But as we disregard the creaturely limits of our planet, the land grows dry and parched as chaff , until it catches fire and nothing remains to slow its terrifying blaze.

Our individual and corporate forgetfulness of the Sabbath is a flawed pattern of living that leads to destruction. The way of the wicked will perish.

So what does last? Is there a better way. Psalm 1 says that the key to asher is studying, meditating on God’s law. The Psalm is placed strategically to carry us from the law that preceded it, and into the songs that will follow. Every word of the Psalms is rooted in God’s covenant relationship with Israel and the gift of the law.

But the Jewish law is tricky subject for many Christians. We often associate the law with slavery and bondage, in contrast to the freedom we have in Christ. Sure, the 10 Commandments are sound moral teaching, but everything else gets a bit too complicated. And Jesus fulfilled the law anyway, right? so we can just move beyond all of that.

Yet in Psalm 1, the law is not a burden or a damper on human freedom. Instead the law is a source of blessing, of prosperity, and even happiness. We need to shift our understanding of the law to make sense of the Psalm. Let’s think back to the very first law, the first two commands that appear in the Bible, given to Adam and Eve. One of the first was to be fruitful, multiply, and steward the earth. I imagine this command gave Adam and Eve great pleasure. It called on their gifts and creativity to consider how best to care for the world. Following this command had obvious, tangible benefits for them and for the generations to come. Meditating and turning over the command would guide them toward knowledge of God’s love for the world, God’s love for them, and the divine invitation for humans to join God in the work of creation.

The other command given to Adam and Eve was that they must not eat from a particular tree, the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil. I don’t think they understood what made this tree different from all the others, or why eating its fruit was a capital offense. The command was not obviously good to them, except for the fact that God gave it. Perhaps they took pleasure in this too, as they walked through the garden, passing the tree but not plucking its fruit and maybe remembering the special place God had created for humans within creation.

The law actually promotes our happiness. It helps us to live a good life. Ellen Charry, one of my seminary professors, has written that, “happiness is enjoying God, creation, and self by cultivating the wisdom behind the divine commands that enable one to become an instrument of the world’s flourishing.” The important thing is not merely the dos and do-nots, but the logic and the spirit that animate the law. Think of the way a yoga teacher or a physical therapist might instruct you on how to align your body while performing an exercise. It’s not an arbitrary restriction. Because they understand something about the mechanics of how your body works, this person can share wisdom about how to use your body gracefully, safely, and effectively. The law teaches us about how God structured the world. The world was created by a good God, so actions that cultivate order, community, and compassion will yield the best results. Living in this way is asher, happiness.

This is a Psalm of orientation, the first of three types of Psalms that we consider hits summer. Such Psalms express hopeful confidence in the goodness of God’s creation and security in God’s presence. But there are many Psalms to follow where peace and prosperity do not seem to be a reality. If you see a world where the wicked prosper and the righteous are cut down, then you will also find many good companions in the book of Psalms. But Psalm 1 is the starting point. This is the vision of reality we are yearning for, even though at times we cannot see it, and growing weary of hoping for it.

Wherever you are today, and whatever you can or cannot believe, asher calls to us. The tree calls to us. How many times walking down the sidewalk, have you slowed down to linger in the cool of the shadow cast by a tree? How many times have you relaxed under a tree, enjoying a quick respite from the heat of the day? As our vbs group walked down to the beach last Friday, we passed a few mulberry trees, and I watched one of our teens pull down a branch and distribute its fruit to the children walking with her. The juice left a purple tint on our fingers. And I was stunned by the knowledge that the fruit was simply there for us to take and enjoy. None of us worked for that fruit, neither its sweetness or its purple stain. It was offered freely, pure gift. Like communion, out in the open on Pratt Street. The one who plants a tree waits years without enjoying its fruit or its shade, but once it grows it is a gift to a whole community. Whoever tended and planted that mulberry tree years ago, could she have predicted us walking down the sidewalk? or the gift the tree would offer on a hot summer’s day?

That is asher. That is happiness. To cultivate and practice excellent habits of living, not knowing when the fruit will grow or who will enjoy it. I keep thinking that I would like to be like such a tree, inhabiting my body more lightly, more free from the burden of myself. Sharing of myself with so little effort, with no sense of loss. A blessing to my fellow creatures near at hand. A blessing to a stranger walking by, who may never know my name.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Salvation Never Stops

A sermon preached at Living Water Community Church 12/9/12

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

This is the story of Sarah. The name comes from the word שַׂר which means prince, chief, or captain. As her name suggests, Sarah was a woman of prominence. Abraham’s half-sister and his wife. She was celebrated for her beauty. Her husband got nervous when she attracted the attention of powerful men. Here she was: rich, beautiful, desirable, but Sarah carried a not-so-secret grief. Sarah was barren. She had born Abraham no children. Sarah had her grief, of course, for the children that were not hers and for the mother she might have been. But even more than that, her barrenness made her an object of contempt. She was different than every other woman. Her body could not do what women’s bodies were supposed to do. And she was a spiritual outsider, because she did not have the child that would be a sign of God’s blessing.

Sarah was 65 when she and Abraham left home to follow God to an unrevealed location. They were passing through Shechem, at that time inhabited by the Canaanites, when God appeared and promised the land to Abraham’s offspring, descendants who would be as numerous as the stars. A land for those children, whose absence Sarah had been mourning for decades. Her husband Abraham might still produce an heir. But was this really a promise for Sarah? “If this is what God wants for me,” she wondered, “then why God has prevented me all these years from bearing children?” Sarah waited five, ten, fifteen, twenty years later, and still Abraham’s only descendant was the child born to the family servant.

It was twenty-five years later, Abraham was 99 and his wife almost ninety, three strangers showed up to visit. Abraham ate and talked with them outside, while Sarah stayed behind in the tent. One of the strangers announced, “I will return in good time and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?” But what was the meaning of that laugh? Cynical? despairing? was it angry rebellion or joyful disbelief. Sarah laughs as an outsider, and her laugh is her own, because we don’t understand it.

One year later, Sarah laughed again. She gave birth to Isaac, and he was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandments given to Abraham. Sarah rejoiced saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” and, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” Sarah’s salvation is that chuckle she hid in the background of the tent, transforms to a full-bellied laugh she shared with everyone who heard her story. This time Sarah did not laugh alone, and the laughing never stopped.


This is the story of Elizabeth. Her name came from two Hebrew words: אֵל, one of the names for God, and שָׁבַע meaning to swear or take an oath. Taken together it means something like God’s oath, or God has sworn. Elizabeth was well familiar with God’s promises and oaths. She lived in the land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants. She prayed to the God revealed to Abraham and observed the signs of the covenant. Elizabeth was respectable, devout, and obedient. She lived her life out of the promise of God’s oath, God’s promises made to her ancestors.

Elizabeth knew the story of Sarah, she shared her pain and her shame. Elizabeth was also barren, and she called her barrenness, “the disgrace I have endured among my people.” To the hopes of her family, to the expectations of the world around her, Elizabeth could give no answer. She was righteous and lived blamelessly, but she appeared to be cursed by God. What good was her devotion, when the whispers of her neighbors followed her in the streets, to the market, and yes, even into church. No one said to her what they all believed, God must have closed her womb as punishment for some secret sin.

Elizabeth’s barrenness was public knowledge, subject to comment and explanation by family and friends. Elizabeth kept herself in seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy. But news like hers won’t stay hidden long. The whispers, comments, and accusations still followed Elizabeth all the days of her pregnancy and motherhood. When the time came and she gave birth to her son, her neighbors and relatives soon heard and rejoiced with her at this show of God’s favor. But as the strange events unfolded, this amazement soon turned to fear. The neighbors wondered, “What will become of this child?” Thus began her son’s life: much talked about and much wondered at, an object of awe and consternation. A strange man with strange beginnings. She heard them, yes, but Elizabeth’s salvation was that she was no longer ashamed. The whispers followed Elizabeth all the rest of her life, and the whispering never stopped.


This is the story of Hannah. The name Hannah comes from the word חָנַן, and it means favor or grace. Hannah certainly had her husband’s favor. When he offered sacrifices, he gave Hannah a double portion, just because he loved her. But Hannah, favor, had not received such favor from God. God had chosen to bless her husband’s other wife with many children, while Hannah remained childless. The LORD had closed Hannah’s womb. Her rival provoked her; Hannah cried and she would not eat. Her husband tried to console her, but Hannah wept still.

Year by year, Hannah’s distress grew. The distress was in her bones, settling deeper and deeper into her being ,until every heartbeat throbbed, “Lord, have mercy.” Barrenness for Hannah was more than an empty womb, it was a physical ache surrounding this part of her life that seemed pointless, where God had not been faithful. She saw the children born to her husband’s other wife and thought, “Where is God’s favor for me? If God is gracious, why do I still carry this empty ache year after year after year?”

One day Hannah was praying silently in the house of God. She moved her lips, but no noise left them. “God, look on your servant, remember me. If only you will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.” Aware of nothing except her desperate need for God, she carried on in a fashion that startled the priest. He rebuked her for being drunk. “No, not drunk,” Hannah answered, “but I am a woman deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my soul to God out of great anxiety and distress.” To this the priest said, “Go in peace. May God grant your prayer.”

From that day on Hannah was sad no longer. Her face cleared and she resumed eating. God remembered her, and soon after she conceived. She received the grace that her name had promised. After the child was born and weaned, Hannah fulfilled her vows and took her son to the temple with many offerings. She said to that same priest, “I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.”

Then Hannah sang. She sang to the God who watches and judges. The God who performs mighty deeds on behalf of the poor, and needy. Her song didn’t begin that day she presented her son in the temple. Hannah’s song began before she gave birth, even before she she learned she was pregnant. Her song began with her silent prayer in the temple. In the quiet pouring of her heart, Hannah met God. Somehow after praying for this son for so many years, she was ready to give him away. She didn’t hold too tightly, but she trusted in what no one could take away, the knowledge that God heard her. Hannah’s salvation is not the gift of her son, but the gift of her song. Hannah sang, and her singing never stopped.


This is the story of Zechariah. Zechariah’s name is formed from two Hebrew words, meaning “God remembers”. But sometimes, Zechariah wondered if God really did remember. Zechariah prayed across years and years that he and his wife might have a child. His heart continued to beat with this prayer after it’s fulfillment was likely, probable, and even possible.

After praying so long, Zechariah was still surprised one day, that God actually showed up. He was in the sanctuary of the Lord, which is where you might expect to run into God, but still he was caught off guard. An angel appeared and said that God had heard this prayer, too sacred to be spoken and too fantastic to be believed. Zechariah found this difficult to believe, and the angel rendered Zechariah mute. On the face of it, Zechariah’s muteness looks like a punishment for his lack of faith. But it was also a sign to help Zechariah believe. Those months without being able to speak, he was not able to explain, justify, or defend. Zechariah had spent all those years hearing God’s silence, now it was his turn to be silent. Nothing to do but wait. Nothing to do but pray for this child. Nothing to do but listen and watch for what God might be doing.

In those silent months, Zechariah learned the lessons he would need to be John’s father. This son was born to Zechariah, but did not belong to him. The child was lent to God for God’s work. The child was named by God and not by his father. Zechariah had to learn in the silence, as Hannah had learned in the silence of her prayer, to lend a beloved son to God’s work. The appearance of the angel was only the first in a string of puzzling circumstances: John’s childhood, his time in the wilderness, his public appearance to Israel, his strange habits, his imprisonment. There were plenty of times when Zechariah was caught off guard, confused, concerned,or doubtful about what God was doing. But he had given up trying to get ahead of what God, and had stopped asking God to behave in ways that made sense.

When Zechariah’s lips were opened, he was more than ready to sing, to praise. He sang about God’s goodness over years and years, and sang his prayers for his son. He sang that you don’t serve in order to get saved, you get saved in order to serve God freely and without fear. You get saved in order to sing. You get saved so that whatever you love most in the world, you can give it up to God, and give it joyfully. Zechariah’s salvation was that in his silence, he learned the free and joyful generosity that comes from trusting God. Zechariah gave his son, and his giving never stopped.

This is the story of Jonathan. Jonathan’s name came from words meaning God and gift. Jonathan means something like God’s gift, or God is gracious. Jonathan was the son of Saul, the first king of Israel. He had some success in battle, already as a young man. Jonathan was a prince and a warrior. He stood to inherit his father’s throne, but he was not captivated by the power and riches of his father’s office.

Jonathan had a keen spiritual vision. He saw the mistakes of his father Saul. Jonathan recognized that God had rejected his father Saul and had chosen a boy named David instead. Jonathan stood to lose more than anyone by David’s coming to power. But, Jonathan loved David, loved him as his own soul. Their souls were bound together. Jonathan shifted his allegiances from his father to his friend. He made a covenant with David by stripping himself of his robe, his armor, his sword, and his belt and giving them to David. Jonathan tried to protect David by pleading with Saul not to kill him, and by telling David to flee when Saul’s wrath could not be turned back. The two men stood in a field before they parted. They kissed and wept, but David wept the more. After that separation they would not see each other again. Finally David received news that Saul and Jonathan had died in battle, and again David wept bitterly. He sang a great song of lament for the strength and beauty that were lost, and because the enemy had been victorious.

Jonathan was the prince who walked away from the throne, the warrior who cherished friendship above ambition. Jonathan’s barrenness was not forced upon him, but he chose to empty himself of power to love and serve David, God’s annointed. Jonathan’s salvation was that he did not repeat his father’s mistakes. Instead Jonathan made himself less, so that God’s chosen might become more. Jonathan is remembered for his love, that he loved and was loved by David, and that loving never stopped.

This is the story of John. His name is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Jonathan, God’s gift. The baby John was God’s gift to his parents, yes. But more than that, he was God’s grace for the whole world. John became a prophet of the fire and brimstone variety, a political prisoner, a preacher proclaiming a baptism of repentance, and a wild man who lived in wild places. John’s position gave him some claim to power. His father was a priest. The story of his birth was miraculous enough. Some people took him for the Messiah, but John denied those claims. John didn’t seek the prestige he might have won so easily. But in his surrender, John became so much more than himself. John’s salvation was that he participated in the very life of God.

The angel’s prophecy about John hints at the threefold mystery of God, a mystery in which John will play a part. The Holy Spirit empowers John to bring our attention to the Father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of David and Jonathan. The twist is that God doesn’t stay in heaven like we’ve come to expect. Already God’s emissaries move back and forth between God and humanity. Angel, spirit, and word dance along the border of heaven and earth, making the whole cosmos hum. All this is preparation. God’s being is about to break forth into the world, God is about to draw near to reveal who God is in a new way.

This movement is part of the life of God. The Christian way of talking about God uses this word Trinity, that God is one but also somehow three distinct persons named Father, Son, and Spirit. These three persons are bound together in what theologians have traditionally called a dance. Each makes a space for the other, each moves into the other. They love by giving themselves and receiving the other. This is what we mean when we say that God is love. God is a loving community of sharing. And John participates in this community. John receives the Spirit to bring the people to the Father and to wait the coming of the Son. John joined the dancers who play, right where heaven and earth are stitched together. John gave up his own power in order to be filled with God’s power. John joined the dance of God’s being, and the dancing never stopped.

How many more stories could we add to such a collection? We could take weeks, and still not exhaust the stories that are present in this room. Each one of us has a story about a way in which we are barren. Willingly or unwillingly, we have given up something we thought we had a right to possess. There are ways we feel empty, or our work seems fruitless, or we weather life circumstances that appear pointless.

I feel my own barrenness in the unmarked terrain that is young adulthood. I am empty before the great questions of my life. When will I find a work with my fingerprint on it, who will be the companions who will stick with me for the long-haul? Even more than the questions, I face the reality that I am maladapted for thriving in this world. I’ll go on an anger binge after a few ill-timed comments, I fixate on what is irritating or incomplete, instead of giving thanks for what is pure and holy and true. I bolster myself against my own demons by being critical of others; I despair of God’s goodness at the first sign that things won’t go my way. I experience my barrenness in the knowledge that I don’t have the tools to make myself happy or good.

If I can glean any wisdom from these stories, it seems that God waits to give us something, until we can receive it without needing to possess it. One of my theology professors has written that, “A person needs to be pinned silent for a time, jarred from comforting but distorted responses rooted in bad love.” We need that silence, because God only offers the gifts that we are ready to lend back to God. Our barrenness, becomes a means of God’s salvation. God’s salvation requires the barrenness, the hopelessness that each of us carries. Taoist wisdom teaches that the clay of a cup is good, but the emptiness is what makes it useful. Walls are good, but the space inside of a room is what makes it useful. Consider John the Baptist, a baby who filled an empty womb, an answer to his father’s barren hopes. A child born in emptiness in order to be useful to the Holy Spirit.

Emptiness is useful. The soul’s cracked landscape offers channels through which the healing waters of salvation can flow. Salvation never stops. Salvation is the loving, whispering, giving, laughing, singing, dancing movement of God’s Spirit among us to transform and reconcile. Salvation never stops. Never stops across centuries, but works its way through the many unfolding and interweaving stories in which every character is made new. Salvation never stops, healing Sarah’s bruised heart, wiping Hannah’s tears, teaching Zechariah a way beyond fear, lifting Elizabeth’s shame, bringing down Jonathan from his throne, filling John the Baptist from before his birth. Salvation never stops. It doesn’t come to us, or for us, but through us, a gift that we offer to God for the sake of the world. Salvation never stops. The end of salvation is to bring us into communion with God, a God who has chosen to be empty, in order to give space to the other. Salvation brings us into the life of God, into the emptying, giving, receiving, filling, pouring dance of love that never ends. Wait, watch, and pray. The empty womb is being prepared for God’s own self. And we pray, Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

School Segregation

Above is a link to a brief video that speaks to the situation of Roma in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine. Its disheartening portrait of the living situation and educational opportunities of Roma in this region rings true with what I have experienced here as a volunteer.

This video interviews Roma and non-Roma who attend separate classes at the same school. This is similar to the situation of the school where I volunteer, except that it is attended exclusively by Roma children. Whenever I have commented on the poor quality of education at this school, non-Roma are quick to correct me that these low standards are true for all schools in Ukraine. Certainly, the quality of education in Ukrainian schools is a shock to volunteers like me who come from North America or Western Europe. Nevertheless, my encounters with Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Roma children convince me that huge disparities remain in the quality of education. Here some children are interviewed who cannot read simple words or write their names. While some of the children I know are proficient readers, and most are able to write their names (if not much else), these interviews confirm my own experience that Ukrainian schools do a huge disservice to Roma children.

One of the interviewees comments that Roma families don't value education, regular school attendance, or schoolwork. I want to complicate this statement. I have met some young Roma who aren't interested in school because their job prospects are equally dismal with or without a diploma, children who are expected to help out at home with chores, younger siblings, or odd jobs, and many don't attend school because they don't have shoes or good, clean clothes. The children often receive humiliating treatment at school; their teachers are mostly ignorant of the dim living conditions for many (not all!) inside the camp, and indifferent to Roma culture or history. I once accompanied a girl home who tried to do her math homework on her lap in a room with two younger siblings, no natural light, a soap opera on tv, a parent who wasn't able to help, and little to no understanding of the task before her. The all too common narrative about the laziness of Roma does little to illuminate her dilemma.

The most disheartening aspect of this picture is that most non-Roma in this region fail to recognize that this is a problem. For most, the problem is Roma themselves, Roma laziness, dirtiness, or criminality. I encounter little to no awareness of, and even less will to reform, the oppressive systems that bind the majority of this region's Roma in poverty and bar them from integrating into Ukrainian society.

One of the favorite games of the children is "Office." They set crayons and papers in piles on their desk, "telephone" one another using nearly any square or rectangular object, and hurriedly scribble notes to present importantly to someone at the adjacent desk. Girls who grew up like I did were not taught to dream of secretarial work, but I sadly wonder how many of these children will achieve even this modest ambition.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

when I want to quit, this is why

A lot of us are worried about why people of my generation are fleeing organized religion. The topic may be tired, but I can’t avoid it because I feel the conflict within my own self. I am both a church insider puzzling over the indifference of youth and young adults, and I am also a young adult who thinks about walking away to try and live her life in her own way.

Most of my life, I have loved being a part of the church. I have disagreed and I have raged, but I have never been able to be indifferent. I have always seen so much good that my frustrations inspired me to try and make things better.

But there is another side. When I see the bad and the ugly I wonder, “Is this church thing really worth the bother?” Today I give voice to this other side and speak about what pushes me away. And though I speak of “the church,” I really mean a segment of my church experience, those things that, when I see them, send me running in the opposite direction.

(1) My ministers are not in therapy. I see pastors leveraging their ministerial authority to meet their own sexual and emotional needs. I see ministers whose arms are full and whose backs are breaking under the baggage they carry.

(2) The church’s talk about the world and humanity feels false to me. I don’t believe that our suffering is punishment for our sins. I don’t believe that praying and reading the Bible will make my problems disappear. I don’t believe that the disco is evil. I hear sermons that tell me how bad I am (simply repulsive in God’s sight), while expecting me to far “better” than I could ever be (a person without lust, anger, or doubt.) The church isn’t talking about the things that make me weep or laugh or set my teeth on edge or keep me up at night.

(3) The church restricts my behavior. Yoga is suspect; partying is definitely condemned. I don’t care if these suggestions are good or bad, I simply don’t like rules. The church isn’t teaching me to live in a way that contributes to my health, or the flourishing of my communities and my world.

(4) The church is racist. Churches are filled with people who look, think, and talk the same way. Worse yet, they don’t desire or imagine that things should be any different.

(5) The church is sexist. As a woman pursuing ordained ministry, I despair when I remember that I could enter almost any other field and encounter less resistance based on my gender.

(6) The church doesn’t see me or make use of my gifts. I am seen as volunteer power, one unit to fill a slot in a long-running program. No one asks me what I like to do, what I’m good at, or what I might dream up for our community.

(7) Fundraising, programming, and ceremony are take precedence over relationship. Church leaders don’t have time to talk to me because they are writing an email to someone more important.

(8) A lot of religious people are really annoying. I don’t know if religious people are any more annoying than the general population, but they do seem to be more self-righteous about it.

(9) Worship is boring. Nothing happens. I don’t do anything, feel anything, smell anything, learn anything.

(10) The church forgets that God is real. People don't go to church expecting that God will move, or open the Bible expecting that God will speak. The church asks God for help with its work, but doesn’t pay much attention to what God is up to.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bad Behavior

Fifty or so parents, mostly mothers, crowded into the school cafeteria. Most of them squeezed into child-sized benches facing the front. Others, like me, sat on tables at the side or stood in the back. They held babies in their arms, sometimes nursing them, and were followed by small children who played by their feet or at the edges of the room with their friends. These were Roma: parents, siblings, or students of the school for Roma children on the edge of town. The school's Hungarian and Ukrainian teachers stood in a line along the side near the front of the room, and a few others with the director in the center.

For the next hour, those up front directed themselves to the room at large. A chief concern was the problem of school attendance. They spoke about the importance that kids come to school and on time and stay for the whole day, and that children continue to attend as they progress to the older classes.

Whatever the intentions, the results as I surveyed this scene were comically tragic. At several points the parents erupted in laughter at this or that suggestion. I felt so much loose energy in the room that I myself could not sit still by the meeting's close. These parents began by talking with neighbors, but were soon motioning to others across the room. They shifted in their places or announced an opinion to no one in particular; nearly all the men stepped out for a cigarette.

I expect that the teachers left feeling that all their negative opinions of Roma had been confirmed - irresponsible, disrespectful, uncooperative, indifferent to the wellbeing of their children, impossible to work with. And these beliefs will come out in the way teachers interact with their students. I doubt that the parents left with a flattering portrait of their children's teachers, and this will do little to mitigate the problem of low school attendance. The disappointment is that two groups of people left the room continuing to believe the worst about one another. It's not a surprise; the meeting wasn't conducted any differently than if the audience had been the children themselves.

I'm trying to imagine my way toward a different model, one in which both parties get the benefit of adult-sized furniture. The conversation might begin with questions. Why are children missing school? Because their help is needed at home? Because they worry that others will tease them about their clothes or shoes? Because they are sick? And if so, why? Because they simply don't like the humiliating treatment they get from teachers? What can we do together to work on the problems? How do the parents understand the community's challenges, and do they get any say in the way their children are educated?

Until we truly listen to another adult human being, we find no antidote for our negative stereotypes.