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Thursday, December 10, 2015

What I Learned on My Maternity Leave

This is intention No. 952 to write this blog since my second son, Joshua, was born eight weeks ago. For the first four weeks, even walking up to turn on the computer seemed an insurmountable task in the midst of feeding, pumping, changing, washing and the interminable newborn screaming that made it impossible to think straight.

A few days ago I turned on the computer, opened a page, and I started typing - only to have Josh wake up three minutes later.

I may not finish again today. But it seems essential and important to record these learnings.

See while the world continued on its way ... while Paris burned and San Bernardino wept ... while Donald Trump spewed inanity and Americans cowered and wondered, holding tightly to handguns and maybe one another -- I wiped a newborn butt, to the tune of 20 diapers per day. I waited for him to fart and looked up techniques for releasing newborn gas. I may have purchased a device called "The Windi."

I wondered: did he weigh enough? Too much?

I drank supplemental "milkmaid" tea. I iced my chest. I put a heating pad on my chest.

I took antibiotics for a breast infection. I applied cream for thrush. I got strep throat and took antibiotics again.

I took a probiotic to get rid of all those antibiotics.

I wondered what I was eating that was making him cry.
I wondered what I was eating that was making me cry.

I stopped eating dairy, caffeine and chocolate. I drank my first beer since becoming pregnant and then gave that up in case that, too, was giving him gas.

My Google search history was dominated by searches about boobs and poops. My 3-year-old wondered what had happened to our special bond. My husband wondered where his dynamic, successful wife had gone - replaced by a quivering, anxious, insecure new mom.

We thought this time we had it down - that we'd learned and now, the second time around, we were pros.

Except each new child throws you back again. The same emotions, fears, joys and thrills - tempered perhaps this time but there nonetheless.

My first son was born when I was just 27 years old - living in a 1BR apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, and finishing up my seminary degree to become a Lutheran pastor. I had no maternity leave and no break from classes, but I also had no job for the first 11 months of his life.

Now I had a new congregation who depended on me, a fellow pastor awaiting my return, and a 3-year-old who had already moved across the country just months before this new little brother had shaken up his reality once again.

I told myself that this time I wasn't going to gain the 70-some odd pounds I had the first, but despite eating healthier and exercising more -- it happened again. A cashier at Costco asked me, two weeks after Josh's birth, if I was pregnant again already -- despite the newborn in my arms. I comforted myself by thinking: at least I still look pregnant and not merely massively overweight.

I told myself this time I'd give birth naturally, and I ended up with my water breaking almost a week late - failure to progress - failed epidural - and eventually, an emergency C-section that all but guaranteed that this would be my last child. With the C-section came the ugly abdominal reminder of womanly failure, the slow progress and retightening of stomach muscles and skin that had been stretched beyond what seemed possible.

There were pads for everything, everything leaked. I felt homely and ashamed and yet at the same time filled, remarkably, with love and wonder and amazement. I begged Joshua to sleep and then when he did I awaited his reawakening eagerly, rushing to his side: "I missed you!"

It's no wonder my husband thought I was crazy. The hormones, the sleep deprivation, the loss and reintegrating of identity -- it was crazy.

I read the news each day as I nursed Josh: Syed Farook, Paris, Cruz, Rubio, Clinton, Trump, China -- a big world was out there and my world had become so small. I forgot my accomplishments, as a writer, as a speaker and a preacher - and my sole worth became tied to the size of two stomachs: was Josh's big enough, and was mine small enough.

Around 7 weeks old, back from a trip to the in-laws for Thanksgiving and just about over a familial bout with strep throat, my husband Ben and I seemed to stop merely surviving and be able to take stock of our lives. We worked on a morning routine with our 3-year-old and started a loose schedule with our newborn. We took family photos on the beach and I tried not to cringe at the size of my butt. I started to breathe purposefully, occasionally. I would be returning to work in one week, and I knew once there I would miss this time - even if I had spent a good part of it wishing it away.

Maybe you've been on maternity leave, or home with a newborn, and you can relate to this. Maybe you're wondering about the alien who has replaced your wife after the birth of your newborn. Maybe you're pregnant and wondering what to expect ...

I know your experiences won't be mine. But I can at least be honest and share the lightness and darkness of an incomparable time in a woman's life. Because when all you read is: "I am panicking about going back to work, I can't bear to leave my baby -- and your baby has been screaming for 3 hours straight and you are missing your professional setting and the vocation God has given you -- maybe it's time for a balanced approach, full of love, admiration, and maybe even some humor.

Here's what I learned on my maternity leave:

1. It's not fair. The very fact that MAternity leave is guaranteed and PAternity leave is mostly a pipe dream shows the unbalanced approach we Americans, and most of the world, have to parenting. After a major abdominal surgery, most men would be laid up - waited on for six weeks with Netflix and healthy meals and physical therapy appointments. They certainly would not be tasked with the care of a newborn, who would rip at their nipples until they bled, and refuse to allow more than 37 minutes of sleep at one time. These men would also not be expected to "enjoy every minute" of this "recovery" time. My husband is a wonderful, loving, devoted man and father. He also will never understand what it's like to give birth, and then stay home alone with a newborn five days a week while he returned to work. I've often thought what would really be great is if men could nurse while women recover from childbirth - but God decided to give us gals all the fun.

2. It's intense. Josh was entirely dependent on me, for everything - just as he was in the womb, except now he was out of it, and he was loud! I had no idea what he wanted. I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety for several weeks, especially after he lost more than 2 pounds after birth due to my milk's late arrival. I'll never forget that initial piercing cry, as he was desperate for food. Even after now chunking up nicely and becoming a regular chowhound just like his brother, he seems to never forget that urgency to eat: immediately.

3. It's as boring as it is intense. Work is often intense, but it comes with rewards and validation. Complete this task - write this sermon, plan this service -- and then celebrate as the Holy Spirit comes and people are filled with the message of Jesus Christ. On maternity leave, no one says as they walk away: "Hey GREAT diaper change! You really nailed that one. It hit me."

"Wow, AWESOME breastfeeding. So inspiring."

Instead Josh would often respond to my AWESOME nursing or diaper changes with sheer screams. He was, like his brother, a vocal child. I initially thought he was always hungry (see No. 2) which resulted in overeating and tons of tiny poops and farts.

But even though I was doing something immensely important, the day-to-day moments were boring. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I relished preschool drop-off so that I could say hello to an adult. Once Jake's preschool teacher hugged me and I felt tears roll down my face as I breathed heavily. It was pathetic and poignant all at once. I tried to plan one major outing a day. Trader Joes and Target never felt so wild and crazy.

4. It's lonely. I don't know why we Americans tend to do this, and maybe I contribute to this by isolating myself, but we tend to isolate our new moms. It's almost as if moms give birth, spend a couple of weeks with visitors and family -- and then in those crazy weeks from 2 to about 6-12 -- we leave them alone, waiting for them to emerge with shiny hair and flat stomachs, and children who survived the first three months without society's interference, or help.

I felt immense pressure to "look good" and to immediately slim down after giving birth. It consumed me nearly as much as the pressure to feed Josh enough and also somehow keep the house and my 3-year-old functioning. I'd done it once before - without another son - and I'd seen my friends do the same. You even see it on Social Media. Watch a new mom's Facebook page. There's the hospital photos, the one and two-week photos - and then things usually go dark for a month or two, perhaps with the occasional selfie or post to a mommy's group. The mom reemerges in month 3: thinner, heading back to work, with a child who now somewhat sleeps and eats in a regular fashion. All is well, except you didn't see the battle she endured to come out the other side.

With my first son I was able to join a new moms group through the hospital at 6 weeks, but this time nothing like that was offered and I couldn't really find much online. I went to one group, but only three of us came, and it was loosely organized. I called friends back home, called my mom way too often, and spent tons of time on Internet groups filled with new moms like me, obsessing over questions to which there was no possible answer except the passage of time.

I knew this intellectually, but I still bought the $20 gripe water in hopes it would help.

5. You always think your child is the only one who ... but he or she is probably normal.

I was convinced I was cursed with overly fussy, alert, wild, difficult children. Now I think perhaps I'm just overly honest and other people lie. And I'm impatient and overly Type A.

My pediatrician didn't help matters one day when I brought Josh in. He examined him, checked him out in the midst of a crying fit and said: "He's fine. He's just a REALLY fussy kid."

The dr went on to say that some kids will just sit and be content. But Josh was tense, super alert, super strong, and intolerant of much manipulation from outsiders. Perhaps it's no coincidence this description also fits me, my husband, and our older son.

You can't escape your genes when you have (biological) children. I'm sure even adoptive parents notice their traits rubbing off in ways they may not expect. But despite each baby's quirks, usually - things are normal. That incessant crying: normal, and will be outgrown. Just when you try just about every remedy possible, you realize - they've outgrown it and now something else is wrong.

6. There is no one way to be a good mom.

Right now it seems "attachment parenting" is en vogue. Babywearing, breastfeeding constantly, no schedules, cosleeping -- all are on the rise. This isn't really my nature. I like my space when I sleep at night, and in general. I also enjoy my identity as a working parent, and "attachment parenting" doesn't fit with my role as a full-time pastor.

So often I felt "less than." I bought the baby wraps -- and actually liked them. And this time I did decide keep breastfeeding, though it was mostly because I thought I'd lose weight - and only became manageable when I instituted a schedule and stopped feeding on-demand at 7 weeks.

There are also the CrossFit moms. The "glamourous" moms. The "Pinterest" moms. Whole ways of being. I saw it all at preschool drop off and lamented my own schlubby, disorganized, store-bought snack self.

But my boys love me, and I love them SO MUCH. As my leave ends this week, that's what I know most of all. That despite the lack of sleep, the identity crisis, the raging hormones -- having a baby INCREASED the love in my life. My capacity to love has expanded yet again and for that, in spite of Donald Trump and ISIS and the hatred that surrounds our world today, I am grateful.

I looked again today at those Christmas photos we took when Josh was 7 weeks old. This time I looked past my expanded waistline, that wide butt, the double chin -- and I looked at the expression on my face in the photo I took just with my husband.

It was recognizable. The same exact expression I had five years ago when we took our engagement photos in Minnesota: unencumbered by parenthood, marriage, "adult" concerns. We still looked at each other the same way. Love had endured, except now - I looked not only at him, but at our two little boys in that same exact way. Whatever size I was post-pregnancy, I looked the same because I was filled with unremitting love.

It reminded me that I was the same person I always had been, just swelled with life and with love.
I was exactly the kind of mom God intended me to be.

I was enough, and so was God's grace.



Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mommy, Don't let the sun go down on your anger

Jake and I were driving to preschool/church earlier this week and he said the funniest thing.

He's almost 3 years old, so he says lots of funny things - but this one made me stop with wonder.

"Mommy," he said. "Why's it get dark?"

"It gets dark at night, when the sun goes down."

"Mommy ... " he said, almost sheepishly, taking a deep breath ...

"Mommy, don't let the sun go down on your anger."

***

Even for a pastor's kid, this was a new one. Where in the world did he get it? I originally thought he was quoting Proverbs. Maybe he'd been watching too many episodes of Veggie Tales.  Maybe when he sat in church watching cartoons on Daddy's iPhone, he was actually listening ...

"Mommy, don't let the sun go down on your anger."

***

Wherever it came from, it was astute. I'd been angry that week, even at one point particularly angry, or at least frustrated - with him. He was such a great kid, so smart, but he had a knack for potty accidents at exactly the worst times.

It had been nearly a month with no accidents whatsoever - even exiting the pool to go potty, which for some adults remains a major accomplishment (see: Las Vegas' Wet Republic at the MGM).

Then Monday afternoon I got the call from the preschool: "Jacob pooped his pants." He's supposed to be fully potty trained in order to be enrolled, so this was bad news.

I had about 5 minutes to get down there, help him change, and make it to my 32-week OB appointment for Baby Boy No. 2. When we tried to slip out of his shorts and get changed, he inevitably stepped his shoe right into the brown mess, creating a bigger problem and further increasing my frustration.

"Mommy, are you not happy?"

Not the right question to ask at the moment.

***

We made it to the doctor appointment a few minutes late, ate dinner with dad, and I honestly don't even remember the rest of the night. I think I took a bath while Daddy did bedtime duty, and I think Jake asked me again a few times: "Mommy, are you not happy?"

The accident alone wasn't a big deal. Then it was the ever-present laundry, the car who cut me off, the empty toilet paper roll, adjusting to a cross-country move, the aches and pains of third-trimester pregnancy, the way my once-huge maternity jeans now nearly cut off circulation to my legs ...

At one point, I think it was on the way to the doctor appointment when the light turned red in front of us, and I said again: "No pooping in your pants!"

Jake responded: "Mommy, you are not happy?"

Tears started to come to his eyes: "I want you to be happy. You have to be happy."

***

It was a beautiful, innocent wish - and ultimately unattainable, perhaps especially during the third trimester of pregnancy. No one, not even mommies, are happy all the time. Sometimes, we are angry. Sometimes there is one thing that rationally makes us angry: righteously angry. Maybe it's unjust murders and civil wars halfway across the world or in our own hometown. Maybe it's racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, bullying. The way the female body, pregnant or not, is always fair game for comments of desire or derision. The way women can be relegated to one role or another: the saintly mother, the beautiful wife, the promiscuous harlot, the bossy career woman - defining us so narrowly that to occupy multiple roles seems to consist of walking a daily tightrope: skirt not too short but not too long; hair not too curly but not too straight; voice not too high but not too low.

As a mom of two boys I recognize I will bear much of the responsibility for defining womanhood to them. They will put me on an unfair pedestal, make fun of me with future romantic partners, and - I pray - always love me as dearly and as deeply as I will love them.

As their mom, I have the opportunity and the prerogative to teach them about anger. So that they might give permission to the women in their lives to feel it fully, and not let it consume them.

***

This is - I think - the deeper meaning to Jake's hilariously wise words spoken the other morning in the car. He had changed his tune. No longer: "Mommy, you have to be happy ... " - now it was - "Mommy, don't let the sun go down on your anger."

This is a Biblical phrase. It comes not from the Old Testament but from the New Testament letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4, verse 26:

Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.

God seems to have spoken through my 3-year-old, who spoke through the Apostle and letter-writer to the Ephesians. 

Be angry.

Have you ever met a kind, charitable church-going woman who always seems right on the verge of anger? She volunteers for all the potlucks. She cleans the church, puts away the folding chairs, leads the choir, helps with Sunday School. She can always be counted on to do what needs to be done, and she loves Jesus.

She is Jesus' disciple, but perhaps all her life - she's been told: "Don't be angry. Be happy." She's never been given the permission of Ephesians 4: to experience anger and frustration and even express it. So she does what so many of us do: in bathroom stalls, driving cars, at home with our families, in the privacy of a quiet room - we stuff our anger until it explodes in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong person. 

We think it's wrong for a woman, much less a mother, to be angry and so when anger inevitably, righteously, hits us - with its cousin fatigue and its brother frustration - we don't know what to do except to bury it beneath a smile that gets thinner and weaker as the day winds on.

All women cope with our anger differently. Some kickbox or Zumba, some mow down a surreptitious box of Dunkin Donuts after dropoff at school. Some drink glasses of wine or pour vodka in water bottles. Some spread nasty, secretive rumors. Some take it out on those who we love most.

We all get angry, though. It is a function of being human and I daresay without anger we would never have won the American Revolution, the Civil War, the women's right to vote, school desegregation or any other host of advances that came about when people got righteously angry and unleashed the power of justice and the Holy Spirit.

God got angry and created the Flood, which became the opportunity for renewal.

Jesus got angry and destroyed the Temple, driving out the moneychangers and those who denigrated religious practice.

Their anger was a means to a righteous end, just as ours may be.

So Be Angry when you are angry and do not be ashamed to say, in the moment: "This is not right. I'm angry."

Let yourself Be Angry. The Bible Says.

Then the Bible says this:

... Do not let the sun go down on your anger

If your anger and frustration has been bubbling today, rising up and threatening to spill over - let it spill. Let it out, however that works for you - and don't be afraid to say: "I'm angry." You're merely doing what the Bible says.

But then, as my 3-year-old so wisely reminded me ... Don't let the anger consume you. When it's out, when it's expressed, when you've allowed yourself to feel this most natural of human emotions - anger loses its power. You feel it draining from you. God - and those around you - have heard it and felt it, and it no longer weighs only on you but now it is shared and as Jesus reminds us, a shared yoke with him is easy - and his burden is light.

Anger is powerful but only as a tool. I believe what the letter writer wanted the people of Ephesus to know was that we damage ourselves and those around us when we allow a relationship - or a day - to end on our anger. Anger must be walked through, but it is a landmark on the journey - not the final destination. It's a means to an end: an end of reconciliation, an end of forgiveness, an end of resurrection.

Be angry ... Do not let the sun go down on your anger

Feel your anger. Accept it. Don't apologize for a feeling. Men have been using anger to get things done for centuries. Let anger's energy empower you for justice and righteousness. 

Think of Rosa Parks. Of Malala Yousafzai.

And then when you've expressed it and felt your anger, let it melt away. Allow yourself to smile - not at anyone else, necessarily - because your smile is not for them but for you and for God. Look in the mirror at yourself and smile, wryly perhaps.

I was angry, and I am not sorry, but there is more to me than anger. I am woman. I am mommy. Hear me roar. And then give your child or your spouse or your parent or your friend or yourself a hug, because: 

"I Love You, and even when I'm not happy - even when I'm angry, or sad, or especially when I'm angry or sad but not ashamed - Love will win in the end."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Pruning Withered Petals and Facing Death in July 2015

July is the cruelest month, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.

July is when grass and people die, when flowers wither in the afternoon heat and parents secretly count down the days until school begins and the screaming frenzy stops.

When sweat beads burn in the late afternoon sun, and air conditioners fry, and desert mouths thirst for water.

July has always seemed to me to be the longest month, though February in Chicago seemed to last 10 years.

The July days stretch into oblivion, and like the lizard darting across the scorched sidewalk in front of my path, I seek refuge in the shade and air conditioning.

In July 2015 Sandra Bland died in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and six days later Samuel Dubose was shot by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a nonviolent traffic stop.

Seven days later Bobbi Kristina Brown died, after six months in hospice care since being found face down in a bathtub, unresponsive, on Jan. 31, in much the same condition her mother Whitney Houston was found dead three years earlier.

A movement has arisen in the past year, to protest police brutality and the unjust killing of African Americans - an uncomfortable realization that the dream of Civil Rights has gone unrealized in a still-racist America. It's called Black Lives Matter, but in the summer of 2015 - life seems cheap.

White supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black Bible Study participants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 15.

As of July 30, the city of Chicago has experienced 276 homicides in 2015 - with 55 in July alone. The average age of the dead: 28. Seventy-seven percent of victims were black.

A deadly summer is not only an American problem. Almost 12,000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of 2015, including 20,000 children since the conflict there began. Fifty-nine people died under torture in Syria in June 2015, almost two a day.

Countless migrants risked their lives for new life and died in the process: the Rohingya people of Myanmar in Southeast Asia were left to perish on rickety boats; Africans and Middle Easterners rushed the English Channel tunnel and a man was crushed to death by a truck on July 29. Central Americans and Mexicans died while riding atop La Bestia, while others crossed the Rio Grande only to languish in crowded Family Detention Centers in New Mexico and Texas.

Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and went on to lead the 16 candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Lives - all lives, but especially those with black or brown skin, or born as refugees, or even the unborn - seemed cheap in July 2015, and yet all around the country Americans continued to blithely deny death, drinking our protein shakes and taking our vitamins.

***

My Grandpa John - my dad's dad - died when I was in third grade. He lived nearby, and he enjoyed dropping by unannounced on Saturday mornings or Thursday evenings. I remember three things about him distinctly: the lingering smell of cologne, and cigarettes, that lasted on his leather gloves my dad wore well into my high school years; the sound and smell of the disgusting cherry throat spray he had to use every few minutes in the months before he died, while throat and lung cancer ravaged his ability to eat and to speak; and finally the ritual he performed every spring and summer Saturday morning when he came to visit our house.

He'd park in the street, walk up the driveway, and pause in the rocks in the front lawn - stooping down carefully to observe the battered flowers my mom and dad planted each Minnesota spring in anticipation of the return of life to the winter tundra outdoors.

I'm not even sure how tall he was - to me he seemed a giant - and yet when he kneeled down, he was at eye level with the violets and marigolds and perennial flowers in front of him - in tones of lavender and orange and gold and whatever had been on special at the neighborhood nursery weeks before.

His knees and ankles and thighs and calves had to hurt when he did it, but he kneeled nonetheless, bending carefully to remove each withered petal from the plants below. Picking carefully, he gathered them into his hands, pruning gently, making space for petals to push through.

Recently I've found myself paying homage to his memory. I buy the $3 Trader Joes flowers on Monday afternoons for home and the office, and the rest of the week I carefully care for the blossoms - each day removing wilted petals, trimming stems, replacing dirty water. 

Sometimes it seems a romantic waste of time, an inutility at a time when every moment counts - when work and church and child and spouse and friends could use my time more than these pitiful petals and yet each time I do it I think of Grandpa John.

He was a man well-acquainted with death. Just a day after reporting to the Pacific front - Okinawa, to be precise - of World War II, he was near-fatally shot in the stomach and airlifted to Guam, and then Australia, where he barely clung to life for the next several months. My Grandma Millie, his recent sweetheart and later-to-be bride, sustained herself on infrequent letters and rosary beads from the Catholic Church down the street where later, their seven children would be baptized and confirmed.

John survived his grisly injury on that ill-fated island, but in a WWII military hospital, death was all around him. He'd watched men die on the battlefield and he regarded their agony in the starched white sheets of an unfamiliar Paradise Lost.

John returned home in one piece, physically, but he was never the same. The shooting had left him with some nasty wartime habits: GI cigarettes, an affinity toward pain medication and morphine, and an ever-present addiction to alcohol.

A young Minnesota father in the '50s and '60s, sometimes his four boys would have to accompany him to the bar or back home; though it was rare for him to accompany them to Sunday mass. They relied more on their strong, stalwart German mother, and when he first met my mom, my dad said he "hated" his dad.

Around then, though, John had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and before it was too late he won his sobriety. I never knew him as anything but sober as a grandpa - and my mom grew to love him dearly, embracing his frequent visits and his deep love of his grandchildren.

It was the smoking, perhaps, that led to the throat and lung cancer and congestive heart failure that eventually killed him in 1993, and I carried with me those three deep memories: the scent on my dad's leather gloves, his cherry throat spray, and the way he pruned our dead petals.

At his funeral our family was overwhelmed by a crowd of strangers, who said they knew John from AA. For many he was a sponsor, someone to call in the middle of the night when addiction roared and danger loomed. They said he helped them get sober, that he was the mentor and leader they needed, and John's own sons and daughters felt a strange mix of pride and sadness.

On this day as they mourned his death and remembered his life, it seemed that he'd shouldered as best he could this nearness to death: from his early years as a poor German Catholic in rural Minnesota, to the killing fields of the South Pacific, to the triage of hospital beds in Guam and Australia, to men drinking themselves to death in the bars and pubs of the 1950s, to a cancer patient, AA sponsor, and Grandpa who died too young - but not before he learned to live amidst death.

***

As I prune my own Trader Joes petals far from Minnesota in Southern California in 2015, I do so I think honoring this memory of my Grandpa John. I believe he did this pruning act in an almost unconscious knowledge that to embrace life and live life anew one must prune and confront death: the death of wilted petals, the death of wounded soldiers, of refugees and victims of racism, the innocent victims of careless concern for life, the death of ones we've loved and lost.

His act was a quiet one, a subtle one - but it was nonetheless an act of resistance against a culture that blithely ignores or sublimates the reality of death until it's too late and death crushes us under its weight. 

He himself had looked death in the eyes and attempted to ignore its power by drinking, by denying, for too many years and then - he confronted it and pruned it, choosing instead to live. 

It was for him, a lifelong Catholic who memorized the Latin mass, a deeply faithful act. In pruning he acknowledged the power of the Cross and the hope for resurrection - that by Jesus' death new life would come; that by God's facing death on the Cross eternal life was won for us all.

For all of us who would call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus in 2015, we too cannot continue to ignore the death all around us, wiping aside the wilted petals and wounded hearts - from Maddy Middleton, murdered in Santa Cruz, to Samuel Dubose dying of a traffic stop in Cincinnati, to hundreds of children perishing on the open seas and trash-strewn refugee roads, their parents risking it all to give them a chance at real life - and those who never had a chance at all.

We must confront the death that faces our environment, that faces our families, that faces our relationships and our heavy hearts, carrying deep burdens we don't bear to share: addictions and anxieties and worries and financial fears. 

It is only when we see the death that we can then seek to prune, to pick, to clear our lives and our world of the wilted petals of the past: of racism and sexism and classism; of hatred and greed - that we will begin to live the lives God has planted for us, blossoming into brilliant colors we could never have imagined.

***

When it came time to plant flowers again after my Grandpa John's death, I noticed that the sprouts again peeked up out of the once-frozen ground. I watched as my dad carefully unwound the hose and watered them gently, and then days later he and my mom knelt down carefully, slowly, eye level with the purple violets and orange marigolds that had made their way toward the sky. They carefully plucked off the wilted petals, pruning as Grandpa John had done, making way after death for the hope of new life.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

#CharlestonShooting: What the Black Church has to teach the White Church, and why what Dylann Roof tried to Kill will never Die

What Dylann Roof did in Charleston last week was evil to its core. He attacked black men, women and children. He attacked the Black Church, and in doing so he attacked the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because for many years in America - the Black Church has carried the heart of the Gospel.

I am a white woman. Most of my life, I've attended predominately white churches. Now as a Pastor, I've served predominately white congregations. I love the White Church, but in it alone my faith was incomplete.

It wasn't until I experienced the black church - perhaps the most venerable African American institution - that my faith and understanding of Jesus was made more complete.

Two months ago, I left my congregation in Chicago's whitewashed North Shore suburbs and drove nearly 90 minutes to Riverdale on the Far South Side. We parked in the neighborhood, where people gathered on front porches and leaned under car hoods, and we walked down the block to Shekinah Chapel, an African American Lutheran congregation that was originally organized as a mentoring program for young black men on the Far South Side.

It was 2015, but segregation felt alive in Chicago that morning -- the blackness of the South Side and the whiteness of the North Shore a witness to racial tensions left forever unresolved and justice never served. Shekinah had to advocate for safe drinking water for Riverdale's residents, in an almost bankrupt municipality that served witness to a part of Chicago deserted by investment and infrastructure. Into places of hopelessness and injustice, the Black Church has long filled the void - and Shekinah has done just that.

When Pastor Yeheil Curry first invited me to preach, telling the congregation one December morning that I'd be returning as a preacher for them later that spring, I had to catch my breath. This was a place of fiery revivals, of Amens!, of Gospel stories of changed lives and real political activism. Pastor Curry's wife nearly won a race for alderman that winter. The church was more than a worship service on Sundays, it was a center for community life in a community where death and despair and poverty sought to conquer life and hope.

What could I have to say?

When the Sunday came for me to preach last April, I felt my whiteness viscerally - it seemed to emanate and almost glow out of my pores, making me visible and different. I was no Rachel Dolezal. I was as white as it gets, outfitted in JCrew and blonde highlights. I knew then how an African American family might feel walking into one of my congregations: different, left out, uncomfortable.

And then suddenly I didn't. I was welcomed, embraced, and when we shared the peace I felt included. Accepted. Loved. Comfortable, even.

I walked up behind the altar, noticed a rip in my pants that must have occurred mid-service, and I knew then I had to own it.

"Here I am," I said, pointing out the rip in my pants, and going on to joke about my red-haired husband and son dancing to "You Can't Touch This," the evening before.

Graciously, the congregation laughed. We moved on. Into Acts 2 and Pentecost and Jesus' vision for the Church, and segregation in Chicago, and North Shore and South Side and an elder in the congregation reminded us all of Shekinah's story and I connected it to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and the ways the Holy Spirit is bringing Spirited Startups in the church today, through Shekinah as a witness to African American Christianity in a historically white, Scandinavian and German denomination.

When it was done I felt both full and empty. Full because I had been loved and Jesus had been present. Empty because it had happened again. Every time I worshipped in African American congregations, I experienced something distinct - different - and something my husband and I discussed each time. Jesus spoke there - God spoke there in the Black Church in a way that changed our faith. Perhaps it is the legacy of slavery and Civil Rights, but in that sanctuary - and at Trinity UCC on the South Side, and in every African American congregation where I've been privileged to worship - the impetus toward justice in the Gospel becomes so much more real. It's felt. It's experienced. Jesus pushes on you, hard, and makes you reconsider everything. There is a real sense of the incredible power of our everlasting God. A Power harnessed for justice and righteousness and mercy -- a power that defeated slavery and segregation and is still at work today to right racial injustice in America.

Somewhere, in his deranged brain filled with white supremacy and KKK and Nazism and anti-semitism and misguided patriarchy, Dylann Roof knew about that power. He knew the Black Church possessed within it an incredible power for righteousness and justice and mercy. He knew that God had given the Black Church its rightful place as leader for righteous change.

Instead of exciting Dylann Roof, this power made him afraid. It twisted within him and, as evil does, the same evil that crucified Jesus on the Cross, the evil in Dylann Roof attempted to kill this Black Christian force for resurrection, new life, and justice. He killed heartlessly, mercilessly, and indiscriminately; his goal to destroy the power of this venerable force for righteous change in the heart of the American South.

As evil does, Dylann failed. What we remember is not his insane rantings or his heart of darkness, but instead we remember that Mother Emanuel has been, is, and will be a continued force for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in America in a way the White Church cannot be. The triumph of Mother Emanuel and the Black Church in general is the triumph of resurrection over death, of perseverance in the face of lynchings, slavery and now a church shooting - a beacon for the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus saves and death will never, ever have the final word.

What I remember most from reading about last Wednesday night is this small sentence Dylann Roof told the police officers who took him into custody the next morning.

"I almost didn't go through with it because they were so nice to me."

He sat with his victims for an hour in Bible Study before he killed them. As Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus before he betrayed him, so Dylann Roof gained intimacy with his victims before pulling out his semiautomatic pistol.

I thought of how nice they'd been to me, at Shekinah, at Trinity, at African American congregations across the Midwest. How Pastor Curry of Shekinah had become one of my dearest friends, closest confidants, and brother-in-Christ. How he - a preacher who could shake the rafters of revivals and stadiums full of thousands - gave up his pulpit one Sunday morning on the South Side to a young white woman who had no business being there at all.

Calling it "his mission," Dylann Roof killed nine brothers and sisters in Christ last Wednesday at Mother Emanuel.

But Dylann Roof in no way completed "his mission," because no death - no evil - no racism - will ever stop the mission of the Black Church in America because the mission of the Black Church in America is the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Nowhere in this great land has the vision for justice Jesus spoke about in his first public sermon, quoting the prophet Isaiah, "to proclaim release to the captives ... to let the oppressed go free," been clearer than in the hallowed halls of the Black Church: in the years of Civil War, in the marches for Civil Rights, in the protests in 2015 for Black Lives that matter, in the face of police brutality or unjust imprisonment.

Dylann Roof was right that Mother Emanuel is a symbol of this great witness. He was wrong to think he could do anything to diminish that witness, for as Joseph told his scheming brothers, "what you intended for evil, God intended for good."

In the hallowed halls of Mother Emanuel this morning, let freedom ring. Let Jesus speak. And let the lives of those nine rise again: a witness not for the evil Roof intended but the righteousness, kindness and mercy for which they gathered last Wednesday night.

May we all - white and black American Christians - gather together again this Sunday and forevermore in their honor, and in honor of all the martyrs who died so that the Gospel might live.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

God Will Provide: Recovering Providence In an Era of Christian Anxiety

Hand wringing among religious folks has never been in short supply, but the doomdayers really had their day a couple of weeks ago, when the Pew Research Center confirmed what conventional wisdom has known now for decades.

We are in an age of post-Christendom - or, American adherents of Christianity continue to decline at a massive rate.

This is a case of statistics catching up with reality. For decades churches have been closing, Sunday Schools have been shrinking, and confirmation classes have been getting smaller. Especially among Catholics and mainline Protestants, the sky has been falling for many years. The Right blames gay rights and liberal theology; the left blames hate speech and an overly doctrinal attitude.

I wonder how we might frame this news in a Biblical manner, beginning first with the Gospel of Jesus Christ - and then ending with us.

Largely absent in most discussions about the surefire demise of the church is the theological concept of providence. Providence, taking its inspiration from Biblical passages like Genesis 50:20 (Joseph says to his brothers, "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good ...") and Romans 8:28 ("We know that all things work together for good for those who love God").

Providence, a word connoting divine care; governance and guidance, has become an antiquated concept. The idea that "God will provide" is tough to swallow in an era of recession, 401Ks, joblessness, and rising inequality. When thousands lost their retirement savings a few years ago, Americans were told to become savers, not to trust the market, to hold off on buying or selling real estate, to trust no one but themselves.

Thus today we find ourselves in a situation where the economy has largely recovered, but banks are still slow to offer loans, and many companies have put off hiring.

The loss of providence has impacted the Church as well. Pastors and parishioners are hesitant to risk too much. Congregations turn inward rather than outward, focusing on "saving our church," "maintaining our building," rather than "being the church," and putting mission goals over facility needs.

None of this is particularly attractive to would-be churchgoers, of course. Neither are the myriad of advantage-taking articles offering solutions to what might be ailing the church. Baby boomers have been "leaving the church," physically and psychologically, before most millennials even graduated middle school.

In many American churches today there is a palpable sense of anxiety, rising perhaps in proportion with the growth in anxiety among Americans in general. Many first-time church visitors sense this anxiety in the people and pastors they meet: they feel the pressure for each new member, the fear lingering in the air that one misstep could cause the whole collapse of Western Christianity, not to mention their beloved church that has stood on this very corner since 1924.

This is not exactly a recipe for growth, new life, or the spread of the Gospel - neither is it one to inspire new converts.

Perhaps instead churches across America might do well to read again Jesus' words to Peter in Matthew 16:18, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

On this rock I will build my church, says Jesus, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

We the Church are not, as the parable goes, the man who builds his house on sand, but rather our house, our Church, is built on rock - a rock on which Jesus says even the Devil will not prevail against.

Providence reminds Christians who we are and whose we are. This is a lesson many of our brothers and sisters across the world know all too well. In countries where Christians are persecuted, bombed and even killed - a deep abiding in Providence is a necessity. The Early Christian martyrs died believing in God's providence, that the Church and the God for which they died would prevail in the end. They died not for the Church of Corinth or for the Church of Galatia but for the Church of Jesus Christ.

In the absence of persecution; our distance from and denial of death, American Christians have forgotten who and whose we are.

In the words of an old 80s song by Jay Beech:

The Church is not a building
Where people go to pray
It's not made out of sticks and stones
It's not made out of clay

We are the Church - the Body of our Lord
We are all God's children; we have been restored.

You can go to worship
But you cannot go to Church
You can't find a building that's alive
No matter how you search

The Church is not a business, a committee or a board
It's not a corporation
For the business of our Lord

We are the Church - the Body of our Lord
We are all God's children; we have been restored.

The Church is not a survey, of Americans who left long ago. It's not a screen it's not a chant, an altar or a rant. The Church is not denominations, bleeding money and mismanagement. The Church is not seminaries, or clerical collars, or jeans, or kneelers.

The Church is an assembly of believers established by Jesus Himself, empowered by Holy Spirit, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might be heard and practiced throughout human history.

If anything, American Christians should be more confident in our God and less confident in our institutions. The crumbling of status quo Christianity is a good thing for Jesus, who detested the Pharisees. 

Those of us who remain, not the ones who continue to check Yes on a survey out of tradition, complacency or duty, but rather those of us who are compelled by something altogether otherworldly and eternal, we are called now to dig deep. For a church that has lost its defining characteristics, we must define ourselves again as the house not of humans but the house of God, which stands even as buildings crumble and close. 

Each church council, each pastor, each bishop must surrender his or her own leadership and turn things over to a providential God, a God who conquered death, and a God whose Church will never die.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

I'm a white suburban mom, and I must speak out for justice for Freddie Gray

I've written this blog in my head hundreds of times since Sunday night, since I saw the rioting in Baltimore one week after Freddie Gray's death due to severe spinal injury, after an arrest and ill-fated wagon ride with the Baltimore police.

I wrote a few sentences when I heard a friend from church say: "Did you see that video of the mom beating her son? I loved it! Wasn't that great? This is happening because the youths have gone crazy."

I told him he was wrong, but I didn't tell him the video made me want to cry. A mom myself, I could only imagine her pain. Her desperation. That her son might not die, like so many others who shared his skin color. Why were we cheering the beating of a child, of another young black male? Did we so desire his humiliation?

I wrote a few more sentences when I heard well-meaning Christians lift up prayers for peace in Baltimore - that they couldn't understand people destroying their own community - that everyone just needed to calm down.

I was haunted by a friend's post the first evening of the riots: "An African-American is killed by the police in Baltimore under suspicious circumstances and only the black people on my (Facebook) timeline seem to care. The protests about the aforementioned death turn violent and then everyone has a hot take. Thanks."

Did property damage matter more than a young man's life?

I read and read and read and prayed and prayed and prayed and hugged my son. So much powerful journalism, from WBAL's Deborah Weiner, who interviewed gang members in Baltimore.

Another friend from church said breathlessly that the riots were brought about by gangs, who gathered together with their hoodies pulled tight and colluded to kill police.

"That's not right," the Bloods said on WBAL. They weren't there to be violent. They wanted justice for Freddie Gray. They came together so that unlike Michael Brown in Ferguson, someone might be held accountable for this young black man's death at the hands of the police.

It wasn't as simple as Ferguson: many of Baltimore's leading officials and police officers are themselves black - and yet in a part of town where thousands suffer lead poisoning and a third of the population over 25 doesn't have a high school diploma - this was also about money and class.

It was about a people forgotten, left to go to jail or die.

"They treat us like animals," a member of the Bloods told WBAL's Weiner. "And now we're acting like animals ... I don't agree with it, but I understand it."

The gang members spoke of unity, of their cause of justice lifting them out of the turf wars and causing them to shake hands with rival gangs - not to kill cops, but to protest peacefully, united together as black men who didn't want to die or go to jail.

"They've looked at us this way for so long," another said, and I kept replaying his words.

***

I was the "they." The white suburban homogeneous masses who pack organic snacks for their children and watch baseball practice and hockey games and worry about vaccinations, not lead poisoning.

The "they" who offer platitudes for peace but neglect the righteous cause of justice.

The "they" who dutifully attend church every Sunday but fail to care about the oppression of our black brothers and sisters across town and across the world.

The "they" who say, "well, we don't really have any black people in our church or in our community, so it just doesn't really affect us. We're here for Jesus, not to talk about race."

I have so many times felt that pull into suburban silence, the right perhaps to post about gay rights but not about race, to say oh that's very sad but not take it any deeper.

I've felt odd, wondering about my place at the table among my activist friends: white and black, who live in neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray grew up. What could I possibly have to say, typing on my MacBook, sitting on my Crate and Barrel couch wearing JCrew flats? The pressure is to keep the status quo. Perhaps to say: I'm praying for peace in Baltimore, and sip my latte.

***

On Monday night as I read about the riots and watched the unfolding news coverage, my Facebook News Feed bombarded with posts both from activists and from folks who hated the rioting but didn't care about Freddie Gray, I thought about saying a prayer for peace.

I started to pray, but God interrupted me, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully. They committed abomination.
Yet they were not ashamed."

Was I the they?

Who were God's people?

***

There is no peace in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore today. Perhaps it has never known peace, since or before the April riots 47 years ago after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death.

Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin users in the country. To be born into Sandtown-Winchester is to be born into a neighborhood where your own home might literally poison you, where 1/3 of homes are abandoned, where murder happens at twice the city's already high average.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Freddie Gray. You were born two months early and spent the first five months of your life in the hospital, before heading to a home with dangerous levels of lead. There are few trees, parks - your mom can't afford swimming lessons or tee ball or toys - the adults you know either barely get by on assistance or low-paying jobs, or they become a part of the neighborhood's most viable industry: the drug trade.

What do you do? College - heck, high school - is out of the question. You survive. You live. You sell and use a little marijuana, maybe a little heroin - because who wouldn't want to escape? You get arrested and instead of rehab or treatment you go straight to jail, where you learn more about criminality and become more hardened. The Baltimore of the waterfront, Camden Yards, the museums, Johns Hopkins University - it may as well have been Paris. You've never left the West Side.

Now the stories are floating out. Freddie Gray already had a spinal condition. Freddie Gray injured himself. The rioters are thugs. 

It sounds like a dismissal. Who is responsible? Anyone but me. I am not a part of this. I am above it.

"They treat us like animals," said the young man on WBAL. 

Freddie Gray died, and we didn't care.

But why would they destroy that business?

***

We say that the protesters in Sandtown-Winchester need to be peaceful; we pray for peace on Baltimore's West Side - as if when the rioting stops and all goes back to "normal" it will be peaceful.

We say we don't understand why they would ruin their own neighborhood - as if their neighborhood wasn't already ruined, by disrepair and disregard by the city, by a blind eye, by failing schools and laws that punish blacks and whites differently when it comes to drugs.

We speak as though they are rioting in Central Park, and if they'd just stop rioting, the flowers would bloom and wouldn't it be lovely again in Sandtown- Winchester. 

The riots are a symptom not a cause. The cause is deeper, rooted in classism and racism and legions of young people America forgot, left to languish in houses full of lead and overcrowded, angry jails full of young black men who never got a chance. 

It's not about race in the same way Ferguson was about race and yet race colors everything we say about Freddie Gray and about Baltimore.

***

Blogger and author Jen Hatmaker became one of the first prominent white Christian voices to speak up about Freddie Gray. The title of her article in the Washington Post called her "a white mom of two black children." She took a brave stand, to pledge her support and alliance to the cause of racial justice.

Unlike Hatmaker, I will never have to have "the talk" with my pale-skinned, redheaded son. I am a Lutheran Pastor of a predominately white congregation on Chicago's North Shore. What have I to say? My son benefits from the same policies that led to Freddie Gray's death.

But as a white mom of a white son in the white suburbs - as a woman who would dare to call myself a disciple of Jesus - I am compelled to speak by the same Bible that resists calling for Peace where there is no Peace ... I am compelled to speak by the same Jesus who said He came so that the oppressed may go free, the captives may be released, and good news might come to the poor.

As long as the struggle for racial justice is only a black and brown struggle, it will be incomplete. 

My struggle is not that of the African-American mother, struggling to save her son from being unjustly accused, imprisoned, or maybe even killed.

But as a follower of Jesus, I must struggle with her. I must lift my voice and say that what is happening in Sandtown-Winchester - what happened to Freddie Gray - what happened to Eric Garner - what happened to Michael Brown - what happens to young black men across the United States each and every day is not right. It is not just. It is not constitutional. It is not what Jesus would have done.

We have been comfortable out here, isolated and at peace in the suburbs, for far too long. We must become uncomfortable, as our brothers and sisters of color have been, for far too long.

May we become bothered and begin to pray - not for peace but for justice - not when riots begin and property is damaged, but every time a young black man dies.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Soccer in Kinshasa: And Why We're So Unhappy


CAPTION: A soccer player practices before a game in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Photography by: Federico Scoppa / AFP / Getty Images
See original image here

I saw her pink soccer socks first, so daring they were almost more orange than pink, pulled up high to meet black and hot pink Adidas shorts in a uniform that surely designated skill and supremacy.

She was kicking the ball in the air, juggling and bouncing it on her knees as onlookers, perhaps her family, watched, the younger boys dreaming of a day when they too would have neon socks and a bright nylon uniform, crisp cleats covered in dirt and muscles honed by hours on the pitch.

She was good, that was clear. An athlete and a team member who practiced because she loved it.

Her teammate sat behind her, knees pulled up, waiting next to their soccer bags, toes shoved through thong sandals and those same distinctive socks: socks of belonging and prowess and, somehow, hope.

She looked utterly normal. Unaffected, as though the ball could soar through the air - touching Jupiter and Mars and Neptune and maybe even heaven - and sail back through the air to her and she'd juggle it without a hitch, so confident was she that the ball would return to her and the game would be on.

She smiled as it came down, as though no one had ever once suggested to her that women shouldn't show their knees or their arms, that girls should learn to pick up after their brothers and their fathers and should never smile except secretively, when no one could see their mouths.

She smiled as though she were free - unencumbered, without fear, without pain - as free to run up and down the pitch as she was to run up and down Africa, no one standing in her way but all gazing up at that bright pink uniform that matched the fiery sunset and shouting: Bravo! Bravo! Well done!

Her face seemed better suited for London, or Liverpool, or Barcelona or even Orlando, Houston, San Diego, Denver, Chicago. The audacity of hope we often limit to the affluent West, leaving Africa shadowed and forlorn.

I did a Google Image Search for Democratic Republic of Congo (People), where she lives. Five categories popped up, three of which were devastating: Poverty. Hospital. Child Soldiers.

The Congo has been mired in Civil War since 1996, nearly 20 years, after 31 years of reign by the authoritarian dictator Mobutu. Five and half million lives have been lost, mostly due to disease and malnutrition. Nearly 3 million children have died. One study suggests that 400,000 women are raped each year in the DRC.

Our soccer player lives in the capital city, Kinshasa, home to more than 9 million people and a homicide rate of 112 per 100,000 (as a comparison, Chicago's rate is 18.5). An estimated 20,000 children - many orphaned or abandoned during the war - live on the streets.

Most Americans see photos of the Congo in desperate men and women fleeing violence and despair in their villages. Young women carrying babies on their backs; children with distended bellies; young boys carrying AK-47s over their shoulders, a hardened, desperate look in their eyes.

Yet she smiled. In her hot pink uniform, practicing for her soccer game, she smiled.

I thought about that moment a few hours ago when I angrily honked at the van in front of me on a crowded intersection in downtown Chicago, as he backed himself into me with abandon and the light refused to change.

About when I grimaced to button up my sweater and pull on a stocking cap to 20 mph winds and 40-degree temperatures in the denial of spring.

I thought of my casual hatred, my callous dismissal, my impatience and frustration and #firstworldproblems.

It's funny when we say that, except we laugh that dry laugh - free of mirth - because inside we know these really are our problems, covering over the deeper problems of addiction or depression or illness or broken relationships or loss of meaning or mounting debt or divorce or fear or aging or infertility or jealousy and inside we know even our money and our mortgages and our handbags cannot free us - that we are encumbered by appearances and lies and determined disregard for life itself.

I do not even know her name but she has stayed with me this week since I first saw her photo last Monday. She reminds me of myself, in those moments when I too am unencumbered, casting away fear, and drinking in joy with confidence that glows from within like neon pink and orange soccer socks.

She reminds me of grace - that when we see those photos of devastation or fear or death in the Congo - we never are seeing the whole picture. Down that same street where the death trucks once rumbled, pick-up beds full of little boys with machine guns, today a young girl practices soccer, and she is full of joy.

Our worlds are not so different, except when we make them so.

It is not, as we often imagine it to be, that joy comes in after all the cobwebs of evil, doubt, despair and death are swept away: when the baby is born, when the loans are paid off, when you graduate, when you retire, when you get married, when you go to heaven, even.

Rather joy, as it did for Jesus at Calvary, exists alongside death and despair, at least here on earth. We are so unhappy because we make ourselves wait for joy. We refuse to embrace it, to realize it can happen just as easily at a red light in traffic in windy Chicago as on a beach in Jamaica.

Joy is not like a mountain peak but rather like a hanging apple, waiting to be picked.

Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Sometimes we hide our joy, we cover up the Kingdom of Heaven, and we become so terribly unhappy, covering up our unhappiness with possessions and addictions.

Sometimes Jesus discovers the Kingdom of Heaven, and puts it in a photo series - in the midst of death and materialism and natural disaster - a young girl is playing soccer in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

I did a Google Image Search for Democratic Republic of Congo People. Five categories popped up. Three were devastating: Poverty. Hospital. Child Soldiers.

This time I clicked on the first category. It said: Happy

Thursday, April 2, 2015

9 Questions raised by Hozier's hit song "Take Me to Church" - and why Christians should care

Since last Sunday - Palm Sunday - I've been listening to Hozier's Take Me to Church all Holy Week, an odd sort of spiritual exercise I suppose.

At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: Take Me to Church - and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.

The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church which has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."

Take Me to Church is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. About Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.

We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay; that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality - and yet while even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the GLBTQ community - but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.

Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals, and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible; Masses in many cases dominated by ritual - women and babies sent away to church-run facilities where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave. Where a woman died in 2013 because she could not have a life-saving abortion ...

Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages ...

As a Pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love. 

I asked colleagues and friends about their response to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."

It's not my job to "redeem" Hozier's song. But his is a poetry that demands Christians consider the deep longings and pain of those on the sidelines of the church. It is a deeply wrought pain and yet also a pain wrenched in spiritual language, a compelling and historical language - words and pain out of which not only death, but life, can come again for disciples of Jesus in 2015.

I don't want to redeem Hozier, to explain his lyrics or attempt to say why he's wrong and church is not dog-like devotion but instead a community of faithful people attempting not to imprison but to set free. Now is not the time or place for a defense or even a confession. Rather it is the time for the beginning of the discussion, for the Church to engage - and not shut out - those pained yet longing masses who have swallowed its edicts but vomited its sin, left sitting on the edges and wondering where Jesus went.

Now is the time for questions raised by Hozier's song - and a chance for the Church to consider and respond.

1) Hozier uses the word "worship" 5x in Take Me to Church, following it 3x with "like a dog." He seems to understand "worship" to be dumb, mindless devotion - as though churchgoers are like dogs who have been taught to play tricks: pray, stand, sit, genuflect, sing, raise your arms.

Is this primarily how people understand "worship?" How is worship described in the Bible? What type of worship did Jesus desire, and was it "like a dog?"

2) The song begins with humor - and laughter - set at odds with a stern church. Whoever Hozier's lover is, her joy is the opposite of what he encountered in religion.

Are churches lacking joy, humor and laughter? Is this what Jesus intended?

3) Among Hozier's most chilling lines: "Every Sunday's getting more bleak ... a fresh poison each week." The lines are chilling because upon self-inspection, perhaps they are true to experience. 

Is there a bleakness in our churches? Are we hastening towards death or towards life? What responsibility do Pastors have in light of bleak churches?

4) One of the principles of Catholicism - and Christianity in general - that Hozier seems to have swallowed is the principle of Original Sin: "I was born sick," he says, "but I love it." 

Do we presume all people to be 'sick?' Have we so thought of our churches as 'hospitals' that we have forgotten their primary role is not healing but maintaining and spreading life, love, hope and faith? Have we emphasized individual depravity at the expense of recognizing and rooting out institutional depravity in our churches? What does it mean if the Church's primary defining characteristic of humanity is "sick?"

5) Hozier says: "Worship in the bedroom ... The only heaven I'll be sent to is when I'm alone with you." Sometimes this seems to be the only lyric Pastors hear when confronting this song!

Are we - the Church - so afraid of talking about sexuality that we neglect the rest of this song because of our prudishness about this line? What does it mean for Hozier to define worship as sex? What role does sexual pleasure play in a Christian life, and how can the Church embrace sexual pleasure and sexual relationship without endorsing promiscuity or unsafe sexual behaviors?

6) Hozier condemns the church, but he keeps vestiges of Jesus in his song: "Command me to be well," he sings, reminiscent of Jesus' healing of a man with leprosy in Matthew 8, and says: "Let me give you my life," reminiscent of Jesus' instructions to his disciples in Luke 9, to take up their cross and follow him, for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and "those who lose their life for my sake will save it." 

In what ways might Hozier be reaching out to Jesus in this song? As Christians - are we so quick to defend the Church that we miss modern-day prophets who speak the words of Jesus? Does our religiosity get in the way of our mission for the Gospel?

7) Hozier seems to reference Holy Communion midway through the song, speaking first of "sacrifice," and then of "starving faithful." 

In what sense are Christians today spiritually starving? When we offer communion, do we offer it in such a way that it fills - or do we leave people starving for the Good News?

8) Hozier sells, "I'll tell you my sins - so you can sharpen your knife," which seems a reference both to confession and also to priest sexual abuse scandals, where in some cases priests exploited the sanctity of the confessional to abuse children. Knife in this instance could even be a phallic symbol.

Has the Church lost its high ground on confession? How can Christians uphold the importance of confession without looking like hypocrites? In what ways can the Church publicly confess of its own sins and how might this be healing?

9) Before the last chorus, Hozier ends his song with these lines: "I am clean ... Amen. Amen. Amen." Like the leper who meets Jesus, perhaps even in his anger toward the church, Hozier believes there is some advantage to being 'made clean.' 

Can the Church play any role in helping people and institutions be 'made clean'? Why would Hozier end his song with Amen, as though it were a prayer?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I am a Teenage Female Suicide Bomber

On Tuesday a teenage female suicide bomber, likely affiliated with Boko Haram, set off an explosive in a marketplace in Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing herself and 33 other people. This could be her story, as I imagine it.

I am 17 years old with unruly hair and an upturned nose and knobby knees and I am a suicide bomber.

I'm dead now, with at least 33 others, and the bomb strapped to my chest killed me as well as them: young men, old men, young women, old women, even children; shopping at a bustling market on a hot day in March in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

I was born not far from here in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. It's dry and hot here but I had a good family and my mom used the lightest fabrics so even in summer, draped in a red dress and golden headscarf, I wasn't too hot. My girlfriends and I went to primary school, learned to read and to write and we heard that we were from the richest country in Africa, and our President's name was Goodluck.

We watched the sun rise and set over the dusty Sahel in the bush, a leopard darted in the distance, and we swung our hands as we walked and felt lucky indeed.

Lucky in spite of the pain - the first pain that hit like a burning knife between my legs when I was 11 and it was time to become a woman.

I cried for days, my tears mingling with the river of blood streaming from between my legs. In all the world young girls get their monthly periods; in my country nearly half of us bleed for a more grisly reason. The elders call it circumcision; a pamphlet I once read secretively in school called it mutilation.

The goal/result: I would never know pleasure, only pain.

***

Still for a time I was happy, until the shadow of Boko Haram cast its darkness over Nigeria and chose Chibok as its scourge. Remember when you posted on Twitter? #bringbackourgirls?

I was one of them - one of us - terrified and clinging to one another as Boko's men bound us together and forced us onto trucks into the dark Sambisa Forest, where they rule without fear.

It was me who was afraid, tortured. The pain between my legs came back again as men with machine guns took away my honor, my dignity, such that my family would never again accept me as I once was - and they did it over and over again as if to remind me that never pleasure, only pain, was my destiny in life.

They said they'd make us wives but to them a wife is only a slave, a wife or wives ... We whispered to each other and never slept soundly. Our food was old or rotten, often bloody bushmeat. We lost weight and starved and cried until we had no more tears, and our bodies felt as though they could bleed no more.

Some of the girls were Christians and others of us Muslims but the men with gruesome faces who claimed Allah but worshiped only death didn't much care what we believed, and after weeks of this hell many of us no longer believed either, reduced to robots - forced to grovel and crawl and fear only the next month and the chance we may be pregnant, to carry a baby into this hell would be worse than living there ourselves.

It got so that I no longer desired to remember my mother, her soft yet sinewy worker's arms - my younger brother and his gap-toothed smile - my father and his silent dignity and his quiet pride. I could no longer pray, or even think in sentences but only exist.

Outside people were tweeting and wearing T-shirts but no one ever brought me back. Boko gave me a new name, a new identity. Who I once was, running in the sand, clutching my mother's arm, writing on a chalkboard - was gone forever.

***

At first I wrote in the dirt where I slept a tally for each day I was here. I guarded it carefully and kept track but as the numbers got bigger a terrible rainstorm came and washed it all away. I wondered, had I been here, with Boko, forever? Was there any before or after?

One morning a tall soldier came with a gun slung over his arm. He grabbed my elbow and brought me before another man, who kept making guttural noises in his throat. A leader of sorts, a planner they said, one who'd read the Koran and knew of ISIS.

They told me to kneel at his feet; that a price had been paid and now I was his wife. Not his first; not his last.

The pain between my legs came again, but I no longer felt it.

***

Sometimes I could remember dreams: of love, of softness, of a cool breeze and a warm breakfast and of someday traveling to that magical place called Lagos and seeing the sea.

The men who came into and out of our tent spoke of dreams, too. Of thousands of virgins and paradise. Of making a difference in the jihad for Allah and how life had a purpose. Their eyes gleamed and shone in the sun.

I wanted this purpose, this gleam again so that something would not be so dull. Life had become such unremitting pain that I had ceased to see colors except only occasionally, sometimes in the red-blue- yellow moments before dusk.

I noticed, fearfully, that I was getting sicker often and my cycle had not come for many weeks. My throat seized with horror, that growing inside of me was a tiny warrior like the one who had made me so numb to life. I wanted it all to stop.

***

They called him Anulugwo, and his name was on everyone's lips around our tent for weeks. His eyes gleamed more than anyone's I'd ever seen and later I heard that on March 21 in Maiduguri he had completed his mission and was in heaven.

I said I wanted my eyes to gleam, to do what Anulugwo had done with the others and so they said they had a plan for me, too. It wasn't for Allah, or for Boko Haram, but in some sense this was the one thing - the one choice - that I got to make for me. Me, whoever that was now, the girl of pain and sorrows but the girl who would not be a slave in pain for one more day because my eyes would gleam like Anulugwo.

On Tuesday morning when they fitted me with explosives and taped them to my swollen, tender breasts, it was the first time I realized that I was really going to die and that it was death that brought the gleam to Anulugwo's eyes.

That morning in Abuja they were protesting to Bring Back Our Girls but I was never coming back.

For the first time since that day when we were taken, a hand grasped mine gently as I climbed off the back of the truck and into the crowded marketplace. Fifty-four people had died there on Saturday but people had to buy food so they came back, stepping frightfully.

I didn't see anyone I recognized; I wondered if I would recognize them anymore anyway because I had forgotten who I was. You never brought me back. Now I had been brought back by Boko so the death I'd died so slowly would finally be over and others could die, too.

When I pushed the detonator around my waist I noticed that the button was red. It was the first color I'd seen in weeks.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Netanyahu's Speech, White Privilege and Evangelical Paternalism

I have always considered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be the best-looking world leader.

I'm not sure why, really. That American air of self-confidence; the navy suits with light blue tie, his short and self-satisfied laugh, his passion for his country ... Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he shares a first name with my husband, that he doesn't shy away from a strong statement.

I probably have poor taste in world leaders, as sometimes I think there is even something to those shirtless photos of Russian President Vladimir Putin fishing or killing a bear.

It's embarrassing, really. And yet as I watched Netanyahu address a (mostly) fawning congressional audience on Tuesday, to be replayed with much ardor on cable news that evening, I found I wasn't alone.

A confident, even cocky, Netanyahu bounded up before Congress. He could barely begin speaking with all the applause, and then laughter, as he joked with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D, Nev.).

What other world leader could do this? Is it possible Congress shares my odd attraction to Netanyahu's light blue ties that match his piercing blue eyes?

Or is something else entirely at play here?

***

I remember waking up in Bethlehem at around 5:30 a.m., paralyzed with fear.

I had never ever heard this sound before: a wailing, mournful voice powered past the loudspeakers and into the dark, predawn streets of David's City, where Jesus was born.

It was the Muslim call to prayer.

And eight years after 9/11, my eyes filled with images of extremist Islamic terrorists, blowing up embassies and crashing into towers and suicide bombers in Kabul ... I associated this noise not with faithfulness, prayer or peace but rather with violence, war, and fear.

I think what made me the most (irrationally) fearful was that almost everything in the West Bank felt so unfamiliar.

Fashionable women in wool coats and headscarves bustled up and down the crowded streets; street vendors noisily sold trinkets and olive wood. We ate chicken with bones and without preservatives; had fresh yogurt and cucumber and dates for breakfast and I found myself both astounded and overwhelmed.

Even Christianity was unfamiliar. Many Palestinian Christians come from Orthodox traditions. The Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of Jesus' birth, is administered by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities. The smells and paraments and rites were strange; the music minor and decidedly un-Western.

Yet these are, of course, the Original Christians: the founders of our faith. And they sang hymns on Sunday morning at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church.

***

A few days later, our group left Bethlehem for the day and went up to Efrat, a Jewish settlement in the hills overlooking Bethlehem. Our Palestinian Christian guide Naim did not come.

We left the smoky smells of Bethlehem, the Call to Prayer ringing in our ears and the jostling of the streets echoing in our minds - recalling the Second Intifada and the time in 2002 when the Church of the Nativity became the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our bus strained up the hills and suddenly we found ourselves in suburban America. We drove through the gates of Efrat, past Southwestern style homes with tile roofs and, I remember, even a Curves fitness center! The familiarity was uncanny. I saw grocery stores and orderly streets and trash cans and American made cars. We entered into a home where the residents spoke barely accented English and welcomed us heartily. Many were proud to display American and Israeli flags. Thousands of miles and oceans away from America, it felt like a base.

***

I was sad in Efrat. Perhaps it was the culture shock of being in too many different places and among people of such different religious convictions at the same time in the same small parcels of land. Maybe it was the stories we heard of Palestinian refugees, of Jewish and Muslim and Christian lives lost in conflict that seemed to have no end, maybe it was the lack of a cohesively shared vision and any sense of a future homeland the Israelis and Palestinians could share peacefully.

***

I thought of Efrat, and of Bethlehem, as I reflected on Netanyahu's speech to Congress this week, and the ways it polarized Americans. I thought too of our current president, our nation's first black President, and how his first name, Barack, was much more unfamiliar than Benjamin.

It makes me uncomfortable to realize that perhaps why I identify with Netanyahu has little to do with what he says or what he stands for and most to do with how he looks and how he talks.

Netanyahu is, of course, a wealthy, white man who spent much of his life in America. Like Efrat, the shining settlement on the hill, to other wealthy white men (who make up the majority of the Congress) Netanyahu is comfortably familiar.

Standing next to President Obama, an inch shorter but with gray hair, blue eyes, and white skin - with a Pennsylvania accent - for some portions of the American populace, perhaps it is the Israeli Prime Minister who seems to them to be more "American."

This is an ugly, racist truth of our country, and it by no means speaks to the wholeness of what America is and strives to be: a place where people of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds are able to make lives for themselves and be viewed equally, where even a "skinny kid with a funny name," as Obama called himself in 2004, could become president.

But as made apparent by national reaction and polarization after Netanyahu's speech: there are still places in America where Netanyahu is more respected and accepted than President Obama. Race speaks.

***

American Evangelicals are some of Israel, and Netanyahu's, biggest supporters. Evangelical groups send millions to Israel and Israeli interest groups each year. Tours of the Holy Land for Evangelical Christians often skip over the Palestinian territories entirely, with perhaps the briefest glimpse of Bethlehem.

Perennial Presidential candidate and Evangelical Pastor Mike Huckabee leads tours in the Holy Land, though his groups don't stop in Bethlehem; they have met personally with Netanyahu. Huckabee tells the Washington Post that the Masada, a desert butte and sort of "Jewish Alamo," is one of his favorite places in the world.

It was here, 30 years after Jesus' resurrection, that Jewish Zealots rebelled against Roman rule and - rather than being captured - took their own lives for the hope of a future Jewish nation.

Masada is a decidedly nationalist place, having really nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, and yet Huckabee calls it - not the Mount of Beatitudes, not the Mount of Olives, not the Garden of Gethsemane - one of his favorite places in the world.

***

I wonder, if what American Evangelical Christians like most about Israel is not its faith but its American-ness: its shiny high rises and Curves and New York and Pennsylvania accents.

We can relate to these people, it's easy to think, much easier than to relate to a Palestinian Christian raised on stories of Return and growing up in the shadow of a foreboding wall.

Evangelical Christian support of Israel is, of course, a bit paternalistic. The pastors who travel with Huckabee on his tours quote a lot of Genesis, but they don't seem to pay much attention to Paul's letter to the Galatians, where "there is no longer Jew or Greek," and Jesus' coming changes the Old Testament forever.

And I would guess that Huckabee and Netanyahu don't talk a whole lot about Jesus, his crucifixion, his disdain for the Pharisees, and that inconvenient truth that Christians believe Jesus was God.

Many Evangelicals believe that ultimately Christ will reign in Jerusalem, and the necessary number of Jews, perhaps 144,000 - will be converted to Christ. They don't say much about the rest of them.

As for the Jewish people, our shared history and Old Testament - or Torah - notwithstanding, Jesus of Nazareth was a fraud. To say Jesus was God is blasphemy!

Of course we don't say these things to one another, as Huckabee slaps Netanyahu on the back and the two white, American-educated men regale one another with tales of greatness.

***

We don't say it because it makes us uncomfortable: that the Israeli-American partnership may hold within it racism or Evangelical Paternalism, painting over deep religious divides that declare one another's most cherished convictions null and void.

There is the shadow of the Holocaust: of European Christians' pogroms and slaughter of Jews. We are deeply ashamed, but we must not atone for our mistakes at the expense of the Palestinians - or by paternalistically supporting Israel without acknowledging the depth of difference in our faith.

The truth is worth examining: as Americans and Israelis seek what kind of "special relationship" our countries will share in the years ahead, as Christians seek to follow the Way of Jesus; as Christians who don't look or sound like American Evangelicals are slaughtered in Syria and Libya, as Netanyahu and Obama stand toe to toe, and the everyday peace sought by everyday Israelis and everyday Palestinians seems ever pushed out of reach, not only by Gaza rockets and suicide bombers - but by dug-in American Evangelicals who seem to have chosen a path more consistent with our skin color and affluence than our faith.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

That Ashy Cross: Why Ashes and Death mark Modern Christians

A friend of mine texted me early in the morning on Ash Wednesday. She works in downtown Chicago and wouldn't be back to the suburbs in time for our 7 p.m. service.

"Does it still count if I go to Shake Shack to get my ashes today?"

She was just one of thousands of Americans embracing a recent revival of Ash Wednesday, that historical rite of the Western Christian Church, marking the first day of Lent by a sooty, ashy cross on the foreheads of men, women and children alike.

I remember being vaguely jealous of my Catholic classmates in elementary school, who got to come to school late and were branded together by their sooty crosses. Our service was later in the evening, and even when I tried to keep my cross overnight, it was always washed off by morning.

At a time when church attendance in America is at historical lows, why this renewed interest in a low-tech rite of years gone by? Even in Chicago, where morning temperatures hovered around 0, Catholic priests, Lutheran pastors, and Presbyterian ministers hunkered down near the Metra stations, holding jars of ashes and signs that read Ashes to Go.

For centuries Christians have been branded by the sign of the cross. From inner-wrist tattoos of Egyptian Coptic Christians, to ornate crosses on the arms of Lebanese Christians, to cherubic Irish Traveller children with bedazzled crosses up and down their flashy First Communion gowns, the Cross has long been a symbol of following the Way of Jesus.

There is something off-putting, of course, about spending thousands of dollars for a diamond encrusted cross that symbolizes a God who on the cross was anything but shiny and flashy and instead humbled himself, suffering death in order to win the ultimate resurrection.

This is why, amidst the signs for Ashes to Go and Get Your Ash in Church and all sorts of other kitschy reminders of this Christian beginning of the Lenten season of reflection and spiritual growth, when I see everyday believers and even questioners coming forward to receive their ashy crosses at Shake Shack and in the train station: I see Hope for the Way of Jesus in 2015.

Of all the trappings and Christian identifying symbols: WWJD bracelets and Promise Keepers t-shirts and Hebrew tattoos - the ashy cross feels most appropriate to a Savior who chose to redeem not by killing others but by sacrificing Himself.

By marking and identifying ourselves with a Cross of Ashes, American Christians are saying today that we are defined by a God who overcame death not by killing but by joining us in our death, so that in our reconciliation and redemption death might be defeated.

In our American opulence and relative security, when we put on the ashy cross we are saying to our brothers and sisters in Libya and Nigeria and the Middle East: we stand with you in solidarity. We recognize that for you to wear this cross may mean death - our life was won by Jesus' death and the deaths of you martyrs - for Jesus did not ignore the ignominy and terror of death but rather experienced it Himself so that we all might have eternal life.

When we put on the ashy cross we are saying to our brothers and sisters in Detroit and Los Angeles and Fargo and Atlanta and New York City and Omaha and Salt Lake City and Seattle and New Orleans: I recognize my own mortality. I admit that I am not God and in this admitting I confess my sins: the times I have not loved God and the times I have not loved you.

Sometimes it seems the cardinal sin of American society is to admit our own shortcomings. We lie about our age, our credit score, our relationships - engaged in a never-ending competition to outlast others until death: physical death, emotional death, death of relationship - hits us in the face and we are lost.

The ashy cross stands as a sooty affront to the exceptionalism that says I will never die because I am better than you. The ashy cross, worn by young and old, rich and poor, black and white alike - symbolizes for some of us the need to remember our shortcomings and for others of us the redemptive power that even as we are surrounded by death - out of even this ashy cross will come new life.

I was marked by the sign of the cross and I heard Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

In a faithless, hopeless world - these words are words of death. The dust is death and life is meaningless and it will all blow away.

In a world marked by the Cross of Christ - these are words of life. Dust is God's building block for life: once we were created out of love and dust and as we embark down this journey of sin, repentance and forgiveness - of ourselves and of one another - we know we will return to that dust again of love, a creative, blowing dust in which ashes are fertilizer and poppies grow on Flanders Fields and lilies bloom in Jerusalem.