Sunday, April 29, 2007

Pass the Coppertone and Praise the Lord!

The summer I turned fourteen my friends and I spent every afternoon at the beach. We found a spot at the end of Twelfth Street, between lifeguard tower and surf, peeled off our shorts and t-shirts, and arranged the sand under our towels just so. I slathered on baby oil, leaving the Sea and Ski and Coppertone for my freckled friends. We turned on the transistor radio and positioned ourselves for maximum sun exposure. Oh, the fine art of tanning, in the days before skin cancer and SPF.

Bodies supine, bodies sublime offered up to the sun. Our view became nothing but slowly shifting sheets of magenta, hot orange, and wild purple behind our closed eyes. The sound of the tinny transistor, seagull squawks, the rhythmic breaking of water on sand, and the voices of other beach goers drifted past us on currents like feathers. The smells of tanning oil, salt water, seaweed and dusty sand. Beads of sweat gathered in the smalls of backs, the bends of knees and swells of breasts, heat licking and searing us, the sun our first lover.

No need of conversation, no need of movement. No need. No want. No desire. Everything, absolutely everything came to us, came to me. I was, we were, complete.

Summer ended. I moved inland. School started. I studied, dated, worked, married, and mothered, exchanging bikinis first for food service uniforms then pantyhose and office attire, then maternity clothes and nursing bras, now support hose and sturdy shoes.

I am at a Sisters of Mercy retreat center, not exactly the beach, and I am wearing jeans and a t-shirt, not exactly a bathing suit, and the grass is damp, so I stay on the asphalt path, and I don’t have a towel, so I use a sweatshirt, and for the first time in more years than I can remember, I point my face to the sun and lay on the ground in broad daylight simply because I can.

The breeze whispers on my skin, bringing smells of roses and cut grass. The sky vibrates sheets of color under my eyelids, the birds chirp, car alarms sound, playgrounds shout, planes scrape against the sky, refrigeration units hum. Everything is a love song, coming to me and through me. No need of conversation, no need of movement. No need. No want. No desire.

This, this is God, and I never knew.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Standing in the Spotlight

A few years ago, my husband and I were driving our youngest daughter and her friend to gymnastics camp in Santa Barbara. We stopped halfway there overnight. When we went to dinner I saw a Methodist church situated in the corner of a shopping center that looked as though it had sprung up around it. When I woke up the next morning, everyone else was still sleeping. There was nothing to do in the cramped motel room besides listen to freeway traffic, so I drove to the 8:30 a.m. service.

I tried a few locked doors before I found one that opened; then I wandered around until someone pointed me upstairs. The woman who handed me a bulletin [program] was so thrilled to see a “visitor,” I got the feeling I was the first person who’d come in off the street in years.

All eyes turned to me when the worship leader said, “Welcome to our visitor. Please stand up and introduce yourself.”

By then I’d preached in churches other than my own, and was used to introducing myself in church circles. Still, it was disconcerting to be the object of such attention and when I did stand, I made it clear that I lived very far away; and that I was already a member of another church. I didn’t want them to spend their hour of worship plotting ways for me to join––not that I’ve ever had similar thoughts when visitors come to my church!

If I’d been Average Joe visitor, I would’ve wanted to throw on Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and sneak out before worship was over. The congregation meant well. They meant to make me feel welcome, not as if I were standing in a spotlight, clad in a bikini, self-conscious as a pageant contestant.

Worshipping somewhere else isn’t the same as worshipping in our own churches where we feel known, and “safe.” I'm an introvert by nature, not good at small talk, and very uncomfortable meeting new people when I don't have a specific role. That’s why I rarely go to church when I’m on vacation, it's too stressful, and being that I’m now a pastor, that seems almost sacrilegious.

I hold those who are brave enough to walk into unknown churches, even with a member escort, in my highest esteem. People choose to visits churches for reasons that are rarely known to those of us already comfortably ensconced in our pews. It could be as inconsequential as motel boredom, or as important as death or disease stirring a person to reconnect with spiritual roots, and an unspoken longing for a reason to hope.

My church is small, quite small, and we can’t help but notice visitors. Even though some of our visitors might be like me, preferring to be invisible, we practice Christian hospitality, welcoming all people seeking God. We don’t make people stand and introduce themselves, but we do shake hands and introduce ourselves during our greeting time, although we don’t expect anyone to remember our names, and we broach conversations after worship if they don't make a beeline for the door.

We send notes to people who fill out visitor cards, thanking them for coming and welcoming them back. We hope that our worship met their needs. If so, we are genuinely happy to see them when they join us again. If not, we don’t hunt anyone down and ask why they’re not there. Our relationships with God and church are our own responsibility, and should never be high-pressure sales pitches.

Visiting or returning to church can feel risky, and intimidating, just like any new activity––Windsurfing comes to mind, something I thought I’d love, but gave up on after an hour in Lake Tahoe. Sometimes people need to take the spiritual journey slowly, until they find a time in their lives and places where they can experience God in ways that speak to their needs and nourish their spiritual growth, and where, over time they will feel at home.

A church just might be one of those places.

Friday, April 13, 2007

We Have to Floss Our Own Teeth

I know a woman, a single mom with a slew of emotional and health troubles, who has teenage son with learning disabilities and major behavior problems. She can’t hold down a job or get her son to school. If it weren’t for her landlords, relatives who long since stopped expecting rent, they’d be on the street. Their lives are completely unmanageable, and yet this woman loves her son and wants to keep him from making her mistakes, like dropping out of high school. Her concern shows up in loud arguments from his failing grades, to his personal hygiene. She even sneaks into his room when he’s asleep to floss his teeth!

In that instance, it’s easy to see she’s gone too far. When I suggested that her son should reap natural consequences from his behavior, like a cavity, she countered that she can’t afford a dentist visit, and none of them accept MediCal. So, what’s the answer? It’s complicated.

Our compassionate natures make us want to make life right for the hurting person. We do everything we can to “help them out,” make them change, or help them change, and still, frustratingly, despite all the time, emotional energy, and money we invest, new problems quickly replace the old, because their behavior doesn’t change.

The pattern of being too involved in someone else’s life––called codependence––might be easy to see from a distance, especially when it’s as dramatic as flossing a teen’s teeth while he’s asleep. It’s not as easy to spot when it’s part of your own life, when someone you care for deeply engages in destructive behavior.

Confronted with our helplessness, we ask ourselves, if we can’t keep our spouse from leaving, our uncle from drinking, our cousin from losing a job, or our neighbor from being evicted, how can we possibly make our communities and our world places free from violence, hunger and hatred?

This is where the gritty reality of faith comes in. Faith isn’t a refrigerator magnet with a smiling cherub, or a crucifix in the entryway. Faith is the belief, against all evidence to the contrary, that God can intervene in lives that seem beyond help and beyond hope. Faith is admitting that we are powerless to control or change another person’s life, and are powerless to control our own. Faith is trusting that there is good in this world, and that if we are willing to do the hard work of breaking free from our destructive behaviors––even if our pattern is that of helping or caring too much––that positive change is possible.

Faith is prayer. Prayer that those who are hurting will get the help they need. Prayer to know our limits in offering that help. Prayer that sees beyond a person’s actions and holds up their humanity. Prayer that desires a full and whole life for those who have harmed us with their destructive actions. Prayer that allows us to let go of our hurts and to forgive others as well as ourselves.

Faith requires that we don’t turn a blind eye to suffering. Faith also requires us to remember that we are not God. We simply cannot carry all the world’s pain without being consumed by it. We need to place those burdens before God, over and over again, trusting that good is stronger than evil and that love is stronger than death.

I can offer the stressed out single mom a ride to parenting class, I can invite the unruly teen to the movies with our kids once in a while. I can even drive him to the dentist. But, I can’t make him change anymore than his mother can. I can pray for them, that they might be open to God’s work in their lives. And I will remember that in this life, we all have to floss our own teeth.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Learning to Rejoice at Easter

When I was a young child, Easter was an hour drive to my grandparent’s house for a basket filled with jellybeans and a hollow-eared chocolate rabbit. When I was a teenager, it was just another Sunday, only more boring, because all the stores were closed and you couldn’t go anywhere.

Then I became a Christian, and Easter was supposed to be the highlight of my year, of my life, the celebrated triumph of Jesus over death that allowed me to have new life. I liked the lilies and the white drapes on the altar, the hymns that were only sung then. Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia. I liked the spring colors and extra dressed up parishioners standing on the lawn after service while their children hunted for eggs in the bushes flanking the church.

But I wasn’t happy like everyone else seemed to be. I was still bruised and bleeding from the death and the graphic explanations of the cross with thorny crowns and pierced sides and all manner of torture. And I was angry with God for ordaining that death, as if in the beginning, the world had been created for the sole purpose of stringing Jesus up on a cross. For me, for my sins.

Well, I didn’t want that responsibility. I wasn’t born way back then, wasn’t a twinkle in anybody’s eye. And I thought everything had spun out of control, like a runaway train, but people said, “No. That was the plan.”

How could I love a God who planned for murder and abuse, who built it into the script? I prickled at the naming of Jesus’ death––Good Friday; nothing that day was good. Even the end result, a world redeemed, shouldn’t let us call the day Good.

Once I had children, I couldn’t read them books of the Easter story, full-color illustration after illustration of Jesus suffering on the cross. I couldn’t read that story to my three year old and in good conscience tell her that Jesus died for her. What could she have possibly done to deserve that guilt? And how could she respond, except to scream and cry No!

It’s not that I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen, or deny that it was a defining moment in the history of the Christian faith. It’s just that the God who claimed me did it with love, pure and abundant. The God who loved me into faith doesn’t require violence, greed and injustice in order to demonstrate this great love. The God I know allows our sins, forgives them, and weeps mightily over them.

The God I know sent Jesus to be a light unto the world while he was in it physically, healing, teaching, preaching, learning, growing, and ministering to the brokenness he encountered all around him.

The God I know allowed Jesus’ brutal and untimely death and intervened in the aftermath to create new life, to transform and resurrect Jesus’ and to change the lives of those who chose to follow him.

The God I know is slowly teaching me to rejoice at Easter. Rejoice because Jesus did not live his life in vain. Rejoice because in the end, the most evil acts can somehow be redeemed and reformed. God’s intervention insured that Jesus would live on in a new dimension. God promises to do no less for you and me.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Foot washing for First Graders

I was the sort of Sunday school teacher Cokesbury wrote curriculum for. I knew nothing about church, about the Bible, about Sunday school, about six and seven year olds. If the curriculum said to make cotton ball sheep, I made them, blissfully unaware how bored I’d become with this church school staple over the years. Back then I was twenty-four years old, wet behind the ears from Baptism and it was all new, possibly even Greek, to me.

I prepared for one particular Sunday in early April. I brought a bath towel from home, sliced a long sheet of butcher paper from the supply room, squeezed brown tempera paint into pie tins, filled a dish tub with cold water and prepared for the foot washing.

This is how it happened. The students, eight or so of them followed me to our classroom when we were dismissed from church. They put a sticker on the attendance chart. I played a song on my cassette player, we sang along. I handed out leaflets with a dot-to-dot of Jesus kneeling in front of a disciple, towel tucked in the rope belt around his tunic, pitcher in one hand, bare feet of the disciple peeking out from under his tunic. After the dots were connected and the picture colored, we opened our leaflets and I read the Bible story printed there. When the story was over I iterated the points from my teacher’s book––

Jesus washed his friends feet before they had dinner together because they were dirty from walking on the dusty roads to this house where they were going to eat their last dinner together. Washing someone’s feet was the job of servants, but Jesus loved his friends so he washed their feet that night.

Then we walked outside, and I unfurled the butcher paper along the cement. At one end of the paper I placed two pie tins brim full of brown paint. At the other end I set the tub of water. The children whose Saturday dirt had been soaked off in baths before bed the previous night were pink and clean in their Sunday best, thus the brown paint.

What the curriculum writers hadn’t considered was the amount of undress required. The boys shoved their socks into their shoes and I cuffed their pants along their calves, but the girls wore flowered dresses and tights. The children were supposed to stand in the paint, walk across the butcher paper, and step into the tub of water. The girls and I knew they couldn’t possibly squish through the tempera in their tights, even if it was washable. The tights had to come off, and I sent them into the bathroom for this. Tights when you are six or seven come off in one way, a tightly rolled tire from waist to toes, a nightmare to unroll.

We were ready. The first brave child shivered in the paint, made gooey brown prints across the paper, and giggled when I swiped my fingers between her toes in the bucket. It was supposed to go this way, with the child whose feet had been washed, washing the feet of the next to ford the butcher paper expanse.

I don’t think the washing was supposed to be so zealous, water soaking pant cuffs, bare legs and sidewalk. I don’t think the children, fresh from patting dry with an increasingly damp towel, were supposed to zoom back in line and traverse the paper again and again. I don’t think the water was supposed to turn brown so that we were washing feet in mud. I don’t think they were supposed to cajole me (the only one suitably dressed in sandals easily removed) to stand in paint and walk the paper with two eager children kangarooing with me at a time as they held my hands.

I don’t think we were supposed to walk across the butcher paper until it disintegrated into dingy damp worms. And afterward, we were supposed to talk about our experience, about how it felt to be someone else’s servant, and how Jesus’ friends must have felt when he washed their feet.

But by then, we were leaping into the dirty bucket and stomping across the sidewalk leaving water footprints and watching them evaporate. When the bucket was empty from splashing, our legs were clammy and cold and paper worms and cement grit clung to our feet and the tights and socks and shoes were not going back on under any circumstances, so we sat along the edge of the sidewalk in a patch of sun, wiggling our numb toes so they’d warm up.

When the parents came after worship to retrieve their children and take them to the church hall for cookies, I felt sheepish handing them rolled tights and assorted footwear along with the leaflets. But the children were happy and when asked, answered that Sunday school was fun, fun, fun and the parents smiled at them and me.

Two or three years later, I experienced foot washing the way it’s supposed to be done at an evening service during Holy Week. There were folding chairs and towels and big stainless steel serving bowls and pitchers full of warm water. We went two by two to the stations, where self-consciously, knowing our feet were clean, but probably smelly from being trapped in shoes all day at work, we unlaced one shoe, slipped off one sock, and rested our naked foot at the bottom of the bowl. Our partner poured water over the top of our foot, swished water round it, lifted it out of the bowl and toweled it dry. Then we switched places. It was all so solemn, I was self-conscious, and it seemed ridiculous to me, since no one had walked to church barefoot or otherwise. How long had it been since any of us had been outdoors barefoot? I tried to think of something that would translate, a modern day equivalent…but what would it be? Washing each other’s windshields before we left the service?

The dark drama of the end of Jesus’ life haunts us even today. It was chaos, a descent into Hell, but out of the depths, joy and wonder emerged. I remember my foot washing with the first graders, how I had to let go of the prescribed curriculum and embrace the moment. Something else happened, something I couldn’t have planned, something better than the plan. That is how God works, surprising us, even in death, and that is the gift of foot washing I lift up this Holy Week.