Monday, July 16, 2012

Goodbye rots

Some dear friends of mine are moving away.  They aren't going too far, like to Australia or California, but they are going far enough that I won't get so see them every week or even every month and already I miss them.  Trying to explain to my kids that they are going to live in a different state has been confusing for them.  It is really the first time our family has gone through this kind of loss, friends moving away.  My kids aren't sad in the same way I'm sad.  The time-space continuum is to confusing to worry about and whether they see their buddies again next week or next year doesn't really matter and can we have ice cream for snack?  But I know they will notice in those traditional times, birthday parties and church picnics and choir when the absence will be noted.  My son has already asked for a playdate before catching himself and remembering that his friend is in NORTH CAROLINA, a state he now pronounces with the same sparkly eyes an ingenue saves for BROADWAY.

It is tricky, this friendship thing, in this culture where we don't stay in one place very long.  My parents still live in the same house we moved to when I was four but I do not expect that to be the pattern for my family and nor do most of my peers.  Things like the internet and airplanes and the shrinking of the world make moving from job to job and state to state regular occurrences for folks in my demographic.  We each handle it differently, kids from adults, men from women, but we are required, by the sheer fact of community, to deal with saying goodbye.  I hate it.  I'm terrible at it.  I'm more of a nonchalant "See you later" then go cry in the closet kind of girl.  Easier on everyone that way, right?

This is, of course, not the first time I have said goodbye to a friend because someone was moving.  All through college and graduate school I said goodbye on a regular basis to people I had come to love.  I moved, they moved, we all moved.  It seemed par for the course, part of growing up.  And since everything is more dramatic when you're 22, the goodbyes were more dramatic, too, fraught with tears and with promises of eternal devotion, never-ending communication and shared vacations for time eternal.

It is different this time.  This is a grown-up goodbye, not so wrenching and dramatic, just sad.  I am genuinely thrilled for my sweet friends and the new stage of the journey they are beginning,one hard-won after a long bout of uncertainty.  I can't wait to hear about their new adventures, their new house, their new town and new jobs, the new school and the new church (okay, I don't really want to hear about the new church). I am grateful that God brought them into my life because I've learned a lot from and shared a lot with them. But I am sad.  For myself, really, because of the very specific gifts they have brought into my life that I'll no longer be around with any regularity. 

I know of course, that like so many of the other gifts that God drops unbidden and undeserved in our laps, friendship is worth every ounce of energy we put into it and every ounce of heartache we get out of it.  I will, of course, continue to make friends, good friends, friends that I love to be with and share my life with.  And I will have to say goodbye, over and over, as jobs and lives change.  The cycle will continue, over and over, each new person adding richness and loveliness, even as they leave little holes in my heart. 

Loving is worth it, even though today I'm sad.     

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Living and Dead

My family lives near a very large and beautiful historic cemetery.  Since I'm a native to the area, I know a lot about the place, about the famous locals buried there, about the various segregated areas and their histories, about the monuments and their symbolism.  I also know that it used to be a very popular place for families to come have picnics, to bring baskets and blankets and toys and spend the day.  This may be true about all large cemeteries, but i still find it fascinating considering our current culture's deep and abiding fear of death.  I've been asked if I think it is creepy to live so near a cemetery and truthfully, I don't.  They make good neighbors, the dead.  They're quiet, they don't change the landscape or have rude habits or put ugly things on the lawn.

That's a little flip, I know.  The truth is, I have a very mixed emotions about that cemetery.  While there are still occasional burials of Old Families, it is mostly full.  Many of the monuments and graves are from the turn of the last century.  My children, much like the picnicking families of old, think it is a great place to ride scooters and bikes.  The sidewalks are paved and wide, the hills roll gently and there is a lot to look at. 

When I go for runs through the cemetery, I turn off my music and pay attention to the graves and monuments that I pass.  Quick math in my head tells me the ages of the people that rest there, and I often connect those ages with people I know and love today.  That large angel covers a man my father's age, there's a civil war soldier younger than my cousin.  Like many parents I know, the tiny graves are the hardest to bear because they are so outside of what I wish were the "natural" order: we are born, we live long and meaningful lives, we die surrounded by great-grandchildren that adore us.  Despite my own theology of death as a part of our journey with God, I still get twisted and torn when I am confronted, either personally or professionally, with a parent burying her child.

In one part of the cemetery, there is a line of five little graves with one larger one at the end, from the 1920's.  They are five little children, born two to three years apart, none living long enough to meet his or her siblings.  The last one is their mother, who died a few days after her youngest child.  This line of graves is so poignant to me, speaking to first the frailty of the human body, which so often-- even in this world of advanced medical science-- cannot survive the trauma of human existence.  But more importantly it speaks to me of the strength of human hope.  Because that mother was so determined to raise a child that even the repeated devastating loss could not kill the hope that the next one might be healthy and strong.

And I add to that the image of my very strong, very healthy 5-year-old son, with his skinny arms and legs brown from the sun flying by this little line of graves on his bike.  He is the image of vitality.  He embodies life and possibility.  What does that mother think of my son, who has outlived-- in more ways than one-- every one of her precious children?  What does she think of me as I chase him on my bike, having never worried about more than a nosebleed in my children?  Is she jealous?  Is she relieved that she has risen above the necessity of worrying about loss?  Is she happy for all of the mothers that will die surrounded by grandchildren from their own healthy kids?

My kids, even my astute five-year-old son, have not yet begun to ask too much about the cemetery.  They know it is where we go to remember people who died when we miss them.  But soon, he will begin to be able to read some of the headstones: mother, father, sister, infant, and I know that the questions will come.  And they will hurt my heart to have to answer them.              

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Reclaiming "Christian"

Goodness, I have a lot of work to do.  I haven't seen the top of my desk in days.  But I'm really distracted by Facebook today.  So many of my Facebook friends are expressing some mix of rage-sadness-support-disappointment-frustration about the passing of North Carolina's Amendment 1 .   I have also noticed the absence of some voices that I miss.

It is no secret that, while I try to stay fairly apolitical when it comes to publicly supporting a particular party, there are issues about which I see no gray area.  This is one of them.  I see marriage equality as a simple matter of human rights.  I was raised in a home and in a church community to respect the rights of all people.  I don't always do it perfectly, but I do work at it.  Hard.  Every day.  As a matter of personal, familial, religious and political belief, I work at it.

Recently, though, what has irked me so much about the "debates" (can we even call them that?) over marriage equality is that they seem to be divided along religious lines.  The main reason that Amendment 1 has been so sad for me is that it is a step backward for people that I love who want/need/deserve equal rights under the law of the land.  The secondary-- and perhaps more directly personal to me-- reason that this has been tough today is that it has stirred back up the hatred and vitriol that otherwise good people spew about "Christians".

I am 100%, through-and-through, without exception and proudly, Christian.  I'm an Episcopal priest, after all.  I have moments of doubt and faith crises from time to time.  I get irritated at the Bible when I don't understand it.  I get made at my fellow human beings and make bad choices in my interactions with them.  Yes.  But none of these things negate my status as beloved, believing child of God and follower of Jesus Christ.

I also believe strongly, as I mentioned, in human rights.  I believe that all people should have the freedom to choose their spouses.  I believe people should live free of fear, fear of their government, of their neighbors, of their family members.  (I wish we could all live free of the judgement of others but as we're only human, I'll be happy if we could all judge a little less or maybe just keep judgements to ourselves.)  We all deserve conditions that allow us to thrive. And it is my understanding that God believes all of these things, too.  And, of course, believed them first.   

But somewhere along the line, "Christian" got all wrapped up and synonymous with "hateful" "spiteful" "ignorant" "close-minded" and "self-righteous".  How did this happen?  Where can we place the blame for this hijacking of the Christian "brand"?  Or perhaps more importantly, how can we reclaim it?

I've always been a big fan of the St. Francis method: "Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary use words."  That is: Live it, doofus.  Walk the talk.   

But I'm wondering if just walking the talk is enough anymore.  "Mainline Protestants Love Radically" doesn't seem to be making headlines.  "Christians Blow Up Abortion Clinic" does.  I am not, of course, suggesting we blow anything up.  But I'm genuinely concerned about how to make this happen.

I get tired, frustrated and sad when this thing, this Christian-Jesus-love your neighbor thing, that is so close to my heart and so self-defining for me gets lumped in with something so dramatically other, that Other Thing that stands for the opposite of what I do and believe in. 

The Amendment 1 debacle is not about me and my own need to rescue Christianity from the clutches of those who want to destroy it with hate.  I know that. It is about denying people what they need to thrive. It is anti-Gospel. But I'm having a hard time concentrating on what matters while dodging the flying excrement.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Satan: he is evil.

Recently, after a particularly rousing rendition of "This Little Light of Mine", my five-year-old asked, "Mommy, who is Satan?"


My first instinct was to say, " Let's call your Godparents!" because that's what Godparents are for: the hard questions, especially the theological ones, right?  But he's a preacher's kid and it seems like a question that I should be able to answer.

Deep breath.

"Satan is the baddest of bad guys, buddy.  He is the meanest, awfullest one out there.  There is no one worse than Satan. The thing that makes him so bad is that he doesn't like God and he doesn't listen to God and he tries to make other people not like God, too."

"Oh.  But he's not as bad as The Joker, right?"

"Much worse than The Joker."

"Worse than Megatron?"

"Yep."  This is going pretty well, I thought.  Satan as the anti-superhero.  Then just as I was patting my own back for relating properly to my five-year-old boy...

"Oh.  But he's not real, right?"

Drat.  "Well, yes, he is real.  But not in a way we can see.  Just like God is real in a way we can't see.  Satan is the one who puts thoughts in our heads that make us want to do bad things to other people.  Satan is the one who convinces us to make bad choices instead of good ones."

He seemed to accept that, my poor little preacher's kid.

It is a hard conversation to have, though, the conversation about evil.  On one hand, I want to protect him and his little sister from the idea that evil even exists, almost as much as I want to protect them from evil itself.  On the other hand, I'm a realist and I know that they will encounter it out in the world, so perhaps my job is to arm them with as much knowledge as possible, doling it out in bits and bytes as they become ready for it.  He is, after all, quite familiar with superheroes and bad guys.  he knows that he makes his own bad choices and that his friends do, too.  He even knows his parents make bad choices (Well, his dad does.  I, of course am perfect. *Snort*)

My husband and I have been treading ever-so-carefully on the idea of "good" people and "bad" people.   These conversations have come up as we have started teaching "stranger danger".  They've also come up when talking about smoking, graffiti, littering...

A huge portion of my own theology-- the one I'm passing on to my kids, like it or not-- centers around the idea that God created us good.  I believe we were created beloved, just as the Creator intended us to be. It isn't a perfect theology.  It hinges hard on free will.  I do think people can become "bad"-- spoiled, in a sense, by their own choices and choices others make that effect them-- but this is nuanced in a way that I'm not ready to discuss with my preschoolers.  And I (perhaps naively) believe that no one is beyond redemption, if not here on this earth, then in the next one.  If I can teach my kids to see that potential without inappropriate naiveté, I will consider my job well done.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Rethinking Forgiveness

We had a fantastic speaker in Adult Formation yesterday.  Maria Mayo is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University.  Her work is on revisioning Christian understandings of forgiveness.  According to Mayo, Jesus' instructions to forgive one's enemies, which Christians have taken on as a moral imperative, are actually morally neutral, designed instead to hold the community together.  In modern times, we have interpreted that instruction to forgive as not only moral imperative but also some kind of healing mechanism, the only way in which the victim can "get over" the wrong done to her.

Mayo, herself the victim of a brutal home invasion that left her raped, beaten and nearly dead on the sidewalk in front of her home, was the recipient of numerous well meaning platitudes in her months  of recovery.  "The Lord works in mysterious ways" and "God has a plan for everything" were among them, but one of the most difficult for Mayo was the advice that a friend offered, a short time after the event, "You will never be fully healed until you forgive the man who did this."  this piece of advice launched Mayo into a journey of trying to better understand modern Christian notions of forgiveness and Jesus' understanding of forgiveness and to see how-- if at all-- it applied to her.

In the end, Mayo has entirely rejected this modern notion of forgiveness, instead choosing to work with the early notion of forgiveness: keeping the community together.  She is using her life and her work to make the world a better place.  She is not going to forgive the man who tried to kill her in the way that Oprah and Dr. Phil would like her to.  But she is not letting him hold thrall over her either.  She instead focuses her life on the betterment of the city, the church, the world, believing that each act of goodness in her life counters the forces of evil that tried to destroy it.

I this way, she focuses instead on a blanket, the blanket that, in the darkest hour of her humanity, an anonymous neighbor carefully placed over her naked broken body on the sidewalk while they waited for the police to show up.  For Mayo, this act of basic decency is sign and symbol that this world is worth living in.  For Mayo, the narrative of this world as a place where women are beaten, raped and left to die does not win.  Instead, what rises to the top is the narrative of a world where strangers  care for one another and a simple blanket is an act of mercy.  This is from where she draws her healing and her ability to get out of bed in the morning, not from a false notion that her unrepentant (and still at large) attacker deserves her forgiveness or that she will somehow find strength in doing so.

Mayo's lecture was elegant, funny and deeply moving.  She has given me a lot to think about and has turned forgiveness on its head in a way that I find deeply compelling.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On not being Judas

Carl Bloch, late 19th century

I've bee thinking a little about today's Gospel.  
You can find it here.

The Gospel of John does not let Judas off the hook.  In various ways, our other three Gospels show Judas as one who has fallen victim to some understandable kind of human weakness.  There are those thirty pieces of silver that he can give to the poor, or the motivation to stop Jesus’ derailing of the movement as Judas understood it.  Either way, while he does finally do the unforgivable, there is a sympathetic thread left dangling where Judas is concerned. 

Not so in John.  The gospeller John hands Judas completely over to Satan, the force of which enters him as he prepares to betray his friend.  There is not sympathy for Judas here, no way to redeem his action or understand his misunderstanding.  This Judas is not to be rehabilitated, this Judas is in league with the devil. 

The mood has changed quickly.  Jesus has just washed his friends’ feet, lovingly touched each one of these men and women who have followed him clumsily and faithfully.  Jesus has just introduced to them and to us the Lord’s Supper, his final meal which we remember in our own Eucharist. 

And then there is that one more piece of bread, that one dipped in the bowl.  And then, there is the presence of Satan in Judas.  And Judas goes out to do what he is to do, out on clean feet, a full belly and a dark and empty soul. 

Judas immediately goes out.  And it was night.

This detail in verse 30 about the night is easy to miss.  We could think of it as just a commentary on the state of the sky.  But remember, this is John we talking about there, John whose Gospel begins with  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

The light/dark dichotomy was not just set dressing for John.  When John tells us that Judas goes out and it was night, John is reminding us of what happens when we leave the presence of God.  It is night.  It is dark.  We are lost. 

What Judas does when he leaves, turning to the night, is essentially what we Christians do every time we turn away from goodness, wholeness, holiness. 

There is Judas in each of us.  We each of us carry around a piece of the one who would rather take the easy road, to act on our tendencies toward gluttony, greed, self-indulgence.  We would rather give in to the powerful evil all around us than look for the strength to resist.  And when we do, we follow Judas into the night.

But we are better off than Judas.  We know what happens next, after the betrayal, after the trial, after the crucifixion and after the death.  We know that darkness doesn’t win. Judas didn’t get that chance. 

Being people of faith isn’t easy, but easy was never part of the promise.  It takes strength to turn away from the darkness.  And when we fail, it takes even more strength to ask forgiveness and come back into the light.  But we do, and we will.  Because unlike John’s bleak portrayal of Judas, we are redeemable, we are strong, we are loved.