Being in Need

Matthew 21:1-11

Earlier this week, my husband and I went to Clarendon for a lovely breakfast on our day off. After our meal, we got into our car, Brian turned on the ignition, started to drive off, until we heard a strange sound.

Earlier that morning, I noticed a slow leak in our front tire. I had just filled it with air, and patching the tire on my to-do list. But when our car sounded like it was scraping pavement, I did a little investigating and saw that the wheel was as now as flat as a White Castle hamburger patty. Evidently, our tire was not going to wait until I got to number twenty-seven on my to-do list. It wanted attention that afternoon. So quickly, it moved to number one.

My husband and I sat in the car for a moment, formulating our plan. Where was the nearest tire store? It was just a few blocks down the road. Did we have anything on the calendar that we needed to cancel? No, I had blocked off the day for my taxes. Did we have AAA? No, I let that expire a year ago.

So, we hopped out of the car, rolled up our sleeves and began to work on getting the spare in place. When we opened up our trunk, we both took a deep breath. It was full of junk. My husband’s church was getting ready to have a garage sale, and so number 7 on the to-so list was to get a houseful of junk to the Palisades Community Church. We had to take out all of the stuff, place it on the sidewalk, before we could get to the tire.

The whole time, I kept thinking, I hope no one stops to help us. I really hope no one stops to help us. I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that we had a flat. Embarrassed that our car was filled with junk, like we were 2011’s answer to the Beverly Hillbillies.

I was sure that who ever stopped would ask me the usual questions like, “Now why don’t you have AAA?” or “How long have you known about this slow leak?” They would not be questions of pure curiosity. They would be lectures, presented in the guise of concern. I was thankful that my husband was there, not only because he was able to get those lug nuts free without using the kicking method that I’ve developed, but also because he would be a guarantee that no one would stop.

When we got tire replaced, I got back into the car. I was feeling a rush of accomplishment. You know people like me who spend all day in from of a computer, we feel overblown sense of importance when we can finally do something with our hands. I felt like I should sign up to be a part of a pit crew.

Brian got behind the wheel, sighed and said, “I hate living here sometimes. Not even one person could put down their smart phone long enough to stop and help us.”

“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head, “can you believe that?” Then my eyes shifted from side to side.

That moment reminded me how much I hate to ask for help. I don’t know why. I just hate needing help. I hate being helpless. Maybe it comes from having a disabled father, and so my role growing up was always the helper, and so I’m uncomfortable with being in need.

Maybe it comes from being a working mom. An article came out in the Post this week about the salary gap between the genders. Did you know that when a man has kids, he can count on an increase in salary. But when a woman has children, she can count on a decrease?
“Why is that,” you ask? I guess it’s because society assumes that we’re not going to be able to excel once we have kids. The cultural expectation is that it will make a man more loyal to his job, but a woman will need more time off, more flexibility, more sick days, more family leave. She will need more.

So working moms work to prove that we have no needs. It’s like we all go to working-mom school, where they teach us things like, “It’s easier just to do it yourself than to ask someone for help.” Or “give your child Tylenol at exactly 8:15, because she’ll feel fine by the time she gets to school.” It’s why salaried women often work longer hours than their male counterparts—we want to prove that we’re not on the Mommy track. We don’t need anything.

It was in the midst of this that I come to this passage. And the words of Jesus kind of hit me. Jesus is telling the disciples to get a donkey and a colt. Actually it kind of looks like Jesus is asking them to hijack a donkey—they’re just supposed to take it. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. And when the owner asks why they’re kidnapping his animals, the disciples should reply, “Because the Lord needs it.”

“The Lord needs it.” That makes me pause.

What does Jesus need? Does he simply need the donkey? Or is there more to it than that? Does he need the splashy entrance to set up the crucifixion? I mean, does he need to make a big deal out of coming into Jerusalem so people will know that he’s there, kind of like Lady Gaga showing up to an Awards Ceremony in a giant plastic egg?

Or does Jesus need something else?

I’m pretty orthodox in my views of Jesus. I believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. But there have been questions throughout history about the nature of Jesus. And in this Holy Week I encourage you all to think about what you believe.

The councils of the early church wrestled with this a lot. Was Jesus a created being, as Arian taught? Did Jesus have two natures, one human and one divine? Did teach different nature take over at different points of his life? Did Jesus have a human body and a divine soul? Could a human body and a divine soul be connected?

These are all questions that the early church struggled with, and most thinking Christians still struggle with how it might work.

When I was growing up, my understanding of Jesus was pretty heretical. My thinking was in line with Apollinarianism. Which meant that Jesus had a divine soul and a human body. So, to me, Jesus was kind of like Superman without the kryptonite. He had superpowers and he could do lots of super things. Just like Clark Kent was a news reporter, Jesus had the form of a carpenter guy.

I certainly never believed that Jesus needed anything. That would be… too human. Superguys don’t need stuff. When I thought of the Holy Week in which we are entering, I thought that Jesus was all-powerful, and he was just going through the motions of death so that he could be resurrected. Kind of like how Superman would go through the pain of becoming a human train track so that the people on the train would be saved. He didn’t have to do it, but he knew that it would help people, so he did.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing how important it is that my understanding changed, and how my understanding of God affects my understanding of humanity, and it affects my understanding of myself.

The Council of Chalcedon (which took place in the 5th century), made some decisions. It said that Jesus is truly, fully human and truly, fully God. There are certain things that make us human: our emotions, the fact that we are born and that we die. For someone to be fully human, there is something else: We need.

We need practical things like food and water. As infants, we need physical contact. We need to love and be loved.

And in this Holy Week, as Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them that he needs a donkey, I wonder if he is saying something important to us. He knows that something dreadful is about to happen. He’s been hinting at it for weeks. And I think that Jesus needs the praise, he needs the love, he needs the palm branches and the affection. He needs to gather with friends, he needs to share a meal with them. He needs to feel the feet of his loved ones. He needs to see his mother as he’s dying on the cross. He needs the shouts in order to endure the vicious cruelty. He needs the waving branches in order to endure the public execution.

He needs it.

I have some dear atheist friends who often argue with me that we serve a narcissistic God, because God needs to be praised. They’ll say to me, “I don’t need to be praised and thanked all the time. Why should God expect it?”

I guess I look at it differently. Because I like that we have a God who needs—just like a baby girl who is being baptized, just like a grown man who is facing death—we come to this Holy Week knowing that we have a God who needs. And when we realize that, we understand something about the humanity surrounding us. We know that it is part of the human condition to need. We are not autonomous, we are not superheroes, we need one another. We need affection, we need love, sometimes we need help on the side of the road. Sometimes we need to take family leave. Sometimes we need food. Other times we need unemployment checks. And that does not make us weak, that does not make us failures. That makes us human.

“The Lord needs it,” the disciples told the owner.

Jesus needed a whole lot of things. And when we are facing difficulties in our lives, may we be like Jesus. May we realize that we need things too.

To the glory of God our Creator, God our Liberator, and God our Sustainer.

Illuminating the Darkness

Text: John 1:1-18

I write regularly for the Huffington Post, and this week, they asked for nominations for the Religious person of the year. Since I was on vacation, I didn’t do any research or nominate anyone, but the question did occupy my thoughts when I was in Florida. Who made the greatest impact in religion? I thought of the many Muslims who have not hidden in the face of discrimination, but they have worked for deeper understanding. I thought of Jews who have worked for peace. But on the site, I represent a Christian perspective, and so I began to think of Christians who have impacted our faith, and the question grew for me, from the past year to the past decade. Who made the greatest impact on religion?

And I imagined all of those men and women. I don’t know their specific names. I could only recognize their shaky voices and blurred profiles. They were the people who have stood up and turned in their priests, pastors, or missionaries who were predators. I thought of all of those who risked the suspicion and disbelief of their friends, loved ones and community. They were brave enough to stop the lies and cover-ups, and they told the truth. Now that I have worked in churches for thirteen years, I know how good they are at suppressing secrets. They are like families, businesses and other organizations. Powerful forces arise when someone has a complaint of this magnitude. And yet, these men and women did what John describes: They shined light into the darkness.

Since the day when those victims began to raise their voices, they became survivors. Many people have had the courage to step up and shine a light in that deep darkness. Now, in our church and in most denominational congregations, we have strict rules to protect children. One adult is not allowed to be alone with one other child. We try to keep two Sunday school teachers in the classroom, and if we can’t manage that, then we have our Christian Educator who floats and checks in on all the classrooms. In our nursery and classrooms, we have clear glass on the doors so that parents will know that their children are being cared for properly. In our denomination, we have strict rules on how a report is to be made, and how the perpetrator will be disciplined. We have men and women who work to make society safe for children. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. It is a struggle in all walks of life to protect the vulnerable and those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet, many have become aware of what can happen when we try to hide things, and they have worked tirelessly to bring those things in the deep darkness to the light.

I grew up knowing that our former pastor was a pedophile, and so it was often hard for me to go to church. Even though I realize that pastors and priests are human, the depth of hypocrisy that it takes to carry out something like that is astounding, and so I always had a difficult time with religion in general.

I have watched people take different positions when the church betrays them or their family. They can reject the church altogether. Or they can proclaim that they are “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they appreciate the goodness, teachings and practices of spirituality, but they cannot abide the darkness of church. They don’t see much good in the professional clergy, the buildings, or the governance.

I understand this thought and I would never try to argue with someone who has made that determination, but I have made a choice to be a religious professional, in spite of all the darkness that I know is in our midst. The reason is because we are human. There is no way to have a spiritual experience apart from our humanity. And with every human endeavor, there is light and there is darkness. Even when we try to be good, even when we try to be noble, even when we try to do the very best and right thing, there is some darkness.

I have read discussions on MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s blog when it comes to the environment. In order to help the environment, she employed the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” tactic. And yet, she found that she had to use harsher chemicals when cleaning her toilets. A commenter was concerned the hamburger that she bought everyday, and how bad her beef consumption was for the environment, so she decided to order salads instead. But then she became frustrated to find that her hamburger was served in a small piece of paper, but her salad was served in a giant, plastic dome. I heard a story on NPR recently that said that many dishwasher detergent companies took phosphates out of their soap, because of the terrible things that they can do to the environment. But the story explained that there was a concern about how it was taking more water to wash our dishes now. We buy CFLs, but then we find out how toxic they are when they break.

We can see the same thing when it comes to technology. The community and relationships that can arise through social media fascinate me. Men and women are able to talk to other people who have the same hobbies. They can share ideas. Artists can sell their art. People with the same political passions can create constellations of hope around their causes or candidates.

But at the same time, we have also seen how people can be bullied to the point where they have killed themselves. Men and women, who may never be so uncivil to a person face-to-face, can become nasty with the anonymity of the Internet. Racism can thrive. The darkness of the technology, having your face hidden in those shadows, seems to create monsters out of some people.

We see it with science. Incredible discoveries were made. We learned about atoms, and then we figured out how we could split those atoms. And the world has never been the same.

We even see it with the medical profession. When wonderful achievements have been made to prolong a person’s life, sometimes we begin to wonder, “Does this person have the right to die?” We appreciate ground-breaking medications, but we also realize their side-effects.

Over and over again, our technology, our science, our advancements have led us to new problems. But does that mean that we should give up on caring for the environment, on technology, on medicine, on science? Of course not. As progressives, we will keep working for the good of all people and the care of the earth. We will work for education and freedom for all men and women. We believe that we will keep moving forward and pushing for a better world.

With every advancement, we understand that there will be light and there will be darkness, and we keep shining the light, even when deeper, darker corners arise. In each of our professions, in each of our passions, we cannot give into the complacency of walking away and in giving up. But we need to keep striving and moving forward.

And I feel the same way about religion. It is my passion and my calling. I have seen religion do incredible harm to women, men, lesbians, gays, and children. But I have not been able to walk away from it and I have not been able to separate “religion” from a spiritual life. I have not been able to sequester myself into an individual spiritual practice, devoid of our life together in this sanctuary. Because I know that we can do more when we are gathered. We have more light to feed homeless people, to care for prostitutes, to teach art to children, and to provide medical care for people in Ethiopia.

There is darkness among us. I cannot deny that. And I realize that my comparisons are faulty in many ways. I am not saying that pedophilia is the inevitable outcome of something that is well-intentioned. No. Not at all. But I am saying that there is darkness that I’m not willing to walk away from, and many of us have been called to the diverse and colorful beauty that our collective light can bring.

Thoughout these days of Christmas, may we remember the light that was born within us, and may we be called to keep illuminating the darkness as Christ did.

Through our Creator, our Liberator and our Sustainer. Amen.

Sacred Practices Leadership Series

I’m learning a lot about different continuing education formats. The most challenging format: having one keynote and  50 workshops of really dynamic people. Then, we have to choose one, when we really want to go to ten of them. Another difficulty: having a pep rally experience, where we go, hear a speaker, get all pumped up, and then leave with nothing. 

Of course, some of the most important things to come out of these event are the lasting relationships and a vision for effective change in our congregations. 

I’m going to be helping to lead this series that has taken these challenges into account. They have designed a wonderful course with amazing leadership (which sounds really bad after I just said I was helping to lead it… but seriously, check out this list). There are a lot of leaders in missional thinking and spiritual practice. 

The participants will be meeting for six three-day workshops over the course of two years. Each workshop will focus on a sacred practice (visioning, discernment, relationship, prayer, proclaiming and interpreting Scripture). Our time together will be marked with practice and interactions.

The information can be found here. I just found out that there are still some spots available.

Prayer

My daughter prayed for snow last night. 

I wanted to tell her not to do it. You know, on the grounds that praying for the weather is typically a selfish endeavor. If God granted the wish of every person who wanted sunshine for her picnic day, we would not ever get any precipitation. Plus, God is not our personal, private genie, granting us snow on one day and a pony on the next. 

But, honestly, I wanted to tell her not to pray for snow because I was nervous. My daughter is not much of a pray-er and I didn’t want one of her first requests to be shot down. I wanted her to pray for something… well… that was going to have a high likelihood of actually occurring.

I started to talk her through a theology lesson on what she should pray for and what she shouldn’t. But I stopped myself. I mean, if she wants to pray, who am I to stop her?

After all, I have always been told what to pray for and what not to pray for. Don’t pray for selfish things. Do pray for others. Don’t pray for small things. Do pray for the big stuff… on and on it went.

It got to be rather stifling actually. I was a pray-er when I was my daughter’s age, and even as a teenager. But when I went to seminary, I felt like I had to figure every request out theologically before uttering it. Every time I would begin to pray, my brain would stop it. My internal, snobbish, master of everything divine would kick in and say, Now, really, Carol. Do you really think that God has time for that?

I’ll tell you a moment when I knew it changed. It had to do when I prayed the most selfish prayer of all. We were in Rhode Island, and I was the pastor of a tiny church. We had enough money so that my husband could spend a couple of months looking for a job. But, after a couple of years, he still didn’t have one (not a lot of Presbyterian Churches in RI…).

It was great, in one sense, because he was able to take care of our daughter during her formative years. Although, financially we couldn’t make it. We began to cut corners. Then, we looked for every bit of change that we could possibly carve out of our budget.  Then we began to sell our stuff at pawnshops, consignment shops, and yard sales. Then we started running out of stuff to sell….

I was totally stressed, running numbers in my head all the time, trying to figure out how the ends would meet. When another mom working in the church nursery pointed out that my daughter’s dress was too small and that I needed to buy her some new clothes, I almost burst out in tears. We were relying on hand-me-downs. I knew we couldn’t afford new clothes for her.

Finally, when I was completely at my wit’s end, I prayed a completely selfish prayer that went something like, “God, I know I’m a pastor, and I’m not supposed to care about money. I know I’m supposed to be above it. I know I’m not supposed to pray these selfish prayers. But we can’t pay our mortgage. We don’t have another penny to spare. We can’t do it any longer. I just can’t handle this. I am powerless over money, and my life has become unmanageable. You have got to restore us to sanity. You’ve got to figure out a way out of this for us.” 

And somehow… the prayer was answered. We didn’t win the lottery or anything, but I suddenly saw a clear shining path in front of me. Very quickly. 

I don’t tell people what they cannot pray. It’s just not my business…. Instead I encourage people to talk to God about anything and everything.

So, how did seminary change your spiritual life? What do you tell children about prayer? What do you believe about it?

The photo is by *Piney*

About atonement

We have a running point of disagreement in our home regarding the nature of atonement. My good husband (please correct me if I explain this incorrectly…) does not buy into any sort of substitutionary atonement at all, penal or otherwise.

Or, to put it in words that we can all get our heads around, he rejects the notion that “Jesus died for our sins” if we mean that God had to have some sort of sacrifice in order to be appeased. He is horrified by the idea that we have some sort of blood-thirsty God who needed a son to be murdered in order to pay for the wrongs that we have committed. For him, it’s tantamount to divine child abuse.

I look at it a little differently. I part from many feminist theologians on this account, I think.

Do I think that there is some sort of cosmic accounting of our sins that can only be rectified by death? No. I don’t believe in the death penalty. It doesn’t make sense in our human courts, so it certainly doesn’t make sense in a theological realm.

For me, the forgiveness of God comes to us, not because a sacrifice has been made, not because of death, not because we satisfied God’s bloodlust with the murder of God’s son. Rather, it is because our world is ordered by the love of God, a God who is always longing for life and reconciliation. I cling to the view that it is through the life of Jesus that we learn abundance. It is through his teachings and his example that we learn to be fully human.

And yet, I cannot ignore power in the story of sacrifice that still impels me. There was, for some reason, this thought in so many ancient religions that in order to atone for our sins, in order to appease God, in order to make peace with the divine, we ought to pour out life-blood, whether it was a pigeon, or a lamb, or what have you. There is this narrative that we carry within us. It is part of who we are as human beings.

And for me, theology is made up of stories, these great narratives that inform our lives. There is something in our belly that makes these archetypes ring true for us. And even in our clever postmodern milieu, we cannot get away from the beauty of this simple myth: someone who was innocent died. And that gift of love made a way so that others might live.

I have been reminded of this compelling story that frames our lives as my daughter consumed Harry Potter this summer. We made it to the end of book seven, and then there was nothing left to do but start all over again. We have been living in Hogwarts for a month now, listening to the intricate details of the lives of Hermione, Ron, and Harry. And it was in the first book that we learn that Harry lived, because his mother died. Her great sacrifice of love created a protection that no evil could ever overcome.

I’m not too ashamed to admit that I cried when I heard it (okay…so maybe I’m a little embarrassed). I don’t know why… there is some gut-level truth that still pulls on me. It connects me to the deep and abiding story of our faith that has formed me. I cannot make sense of why there had to be such a sacrifice. I don’t know who accepts a martyr’s payment. But I cannot deny the salience of the narrative.

Perhaps there is no payment to anyone. Perhaps it is simply the power of the gift.

So what about you? What do you think? Have we simply evolved past the notion of martyrdom and sacrifice? Or, should we be evolving, and is Christianity holding us back? If a sacrifice was made, to whom was it made? How do you make sense of it?

photo by gunnisal

Race, religion, and politics

Adam, at A Wee Blether, and I are having a conversation about Jeremiah Wright. Adam started it out by asking:

With our current media situation, can we in America have a responsible public conversation on race, religion, and politics or are we destined to the lowest common denominator of ten-second sound-bites?

I was serving a small church in Cajun Louisiana. Think The Apostle, Robert Duvall’s masterpiece from eleven years ago, and you’ll know where I was. It was literally filmed down the road from my church.

When I was doing some community organizing, I made friends with Prophetess Perot. She asked me to preach at her revival at the House of Prayer, and I (of course) accepted.

I had no idea what was in store when I drove up to the tiny clapboard house. The building had been transported from a plantation and its walls were soaked with history. Houses of Prayer were the one place on the plantation where slaves met, without any oversight or fear of their owners.

This House of Prayer was where the Bible was read and preached, where revolutions were planned, where hope was reignited. Within those walls, in that safe place, men and women told their stories. They could cry about the beatings, they could whisper the truth about the rapes. The sanctuary was a refuge in every sense of the word.

Upon entering, I found out that the walls were now filled with posters, with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. written on them, next to the words of the biblical prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. I read them as the heat from the room enclosed on me.

The series of services was not a revival in the sense that they were out to save anybody. It was a week to revive the pastor. All the speakers and singers were there to encourage the congregation and the prophetess in her work. The gathering was made up mostly of women, and when we talked, I found out that most of them were professional cleaners.

The deacons had starched white coats on. They lined the walls to make sure everyone was helped. I was thankful that I wore a dress, and my husband was in a suit, otherwise we would have felt quite out of place.

We began the service with singing praise choruses and spirituals. And there’s so much I could write about—how the prophetess entered twenty minutes late and was seated in a large wicker chair, how the singers were a family act who traveled about from revival to revival–but I need to get to the point, so I’ll skip all that and tell you about the deaconess who got up to pray.

She was beautiful. Thin, black, with perfect posture. I was about 27 at the time, and she was the same age. When she opened her mouth, there was some sort of power behind her words. A force I can’t explain. But, the preachers reading this know what I’m talking about. She prayed through every part of her body, that her mouth, and nose, and ears, and hands, and feet would all serve God. It was poetry. It’s a prayer form that I’ve tried to copy a hundred times since I first heard it. Except for one part. When she referred to God… at first I didn’t understand it… I couldn’t figure out what she was saying.

And then it hit me. She was saying, “Massah.”

Oh no. It can’t be. I thought. And she said it again. And again. She’s my age. She grew up in the same country that I did. She’s smart. This can’t be.

I had this gut-wrenching urge to plead with her, “You can’t do that! You cannot refer to God as your Master. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. You are God’s daughter. You are not God’s slave.”

I recall the incident frequently in my mind. And sometimes I still wish that I had been brave enough. But I wasn’t. It was not my place to enter into that sacred house and begin telling her what to do. To tell her how to talk to God. I didn’t think of myself as a descendant of slave owners; that historical fact was far removed from my reality. I keep it there, because of the shame. But she knew that she was a descendent of slaves.

Our history was in the walls, and it was in her veins. And she would pray to God, who was her only Master, in the way that she wanted. It was not my turn to speak. It was my turn to listen, and to pray with her.

There was so much in those walls. We were sitting in a context of history that I could never understand.

And, so to answer the question, I’d say that we cannot have a responsible discussion on race in America in the media, by extrapolating sensational sound bites and listening to them over and over again. It’s not just the full context of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons that we are missing. We are missing a beautiful, sorrowful, and complicated history, an entire tradition of people who could speak freely in their sanctuaries without the fear of censure.

I do not agree with Jeremiah Wright. I am saddened by the damage he has done to Barack Obama’s campaign. I shudder at what he has said about AIDS. I fear when he says, “God damn America.” There’s just something deep within me that worries that God will hear him. That God will honor his plea. I watch the National Press Club clips and shake my head. Rev. Wright has been flippant when he should have been serious.

But I also acknowledge he’s speaking in a context that I will never understand, one that pulses in this country, and goes far beyond the context of the sermon. It is a tradition that began in those Houses of Prayer. In the one place where people could speak freely. Where no one could tell them what they ought to say, and how they ought to pray, and how they ought to sing, and how they ought to talk to God.

And so, it is again my place to listen. Not only to Wright’s sermons, but to the vital tradition of liberation that scares me and gives me hope.

We cannot have a responsible conversation in the media. But we can have it in our spiritual communities. And the words of Rev. Wright have stirred up that opportunity.

So, Adam, let me ask you, what are the theological implications of Jeremiah Wright’s words?