The Girl in the Cafe

While taking care of my grandmother this week, I got to watch the Emmys (something I would not otherwise do). We were tickled by the number of programs that we had never heard of that won awards. So, like good people of the 20th century, we updated our Netflix queue -- that's my grandmother's queue -- to get these unheard of films.

And it turns out, HBO does some super great stuff. And I must recommend this film which pushes the questions of poverty with a healthy dose of idealism. But, if we must think of the least of these with numbers and wonder why the big important people with all of the power do nothing, then this is the film to pose the question. With a silly love story to boot.

Um, and might I add, she's too young for him.


A Prayer for Renewal

God of hurricanes and disorder, God of storms and destruction,
who stilled the waters of creation from chaos and brought liberation to your people across the seas,
we long for the certainty of this renewal.
But, O Lord, how long?

How long O Lord must we dream of new life?
It has been one year since we saw the destruction of Hurricane Katrina rip apart Louisianna and Missississippi.
It has been one year since the levees broke.
It has been one year since the poverty and racism of our nation was exposed like a gapping wound.
It has been one year since Hurricane Rita added further insult to our grief and loss.
O Lord, how long must we dream of new life?

How long must we wait until governments and officials address our needs?
How long must we wait for our nation to be brave enough to talk about the injustice of this event?
How long must we wait for the arrival of the promised land?

God of summer rains and rebirth, God of living water and hope,
we long for your presence now more than ever.

Be with us O Lord.
Be with the evacuees, the victims and those that we callously named "refugees."
Be with the relief workers, justice seekers and truth tellers.
Be with our prayers and our hopes.
Be with our leaders and questioners.
Be with us O God, as we need you now more than ever.
Restore us in the hope of your living water.
Pour us a cup of your justice,
Bathe us in your hope, as you did for Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

I can PREACH...

... and ain't I a woman?

I'm stealing from Maya Angelou. But, ain't I? Ain't I a woman? And not to be arrogant, but I've been told that I can preach. I've been told that I have the gift. Ahem. Excuse me.

But, apparently, we are not all ready to see women in the pulpit. It's something that we are struggling with in all of cour churches -- liberal to conservative. It made the cover of the New York Times on Saturday. And it baffles me. I've heard it before. But, there it is on the cover of the New York Times. It reads:

The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, pastor of Crossroads United Methodist Church in Phoenix, said that at every church where she has served, people have told her they were leaving because she is a woman.

At a large church where she was an associate pastor, a colleague told her that when she was in the pulpit, he could not focus on what she was saying because she is a woman. A man in the congregation covered his eyes whenever she preached.

Most women clergy (and those of us in training) have heard these comments. But, honey, I can preach. I will preach. And ain't I a woman?


Tradition of the Elders

The lections for this week in the seventh chapter of Mark remind me of the comment I received in my previous post. In the fifth verse of this Scripture reading, the Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"

The tradition of the elders, which is perhaps more commonly known as the Great Tradition, refers to the purity laws that the Pharisees (at least for the most part) kept. This group of small elites concerned themselves with ensuring that the holiness held within the Temple was also shared throughout Israel, as they believed Israel to be holy (though not as holy as the Temple, of course). It's hard not to imagine this as a legalistic version of religious faith (which could err toward fundamentalist tendancies) where this small group obsesses about what's "right."

I'm preaching on this text this coming Sunday and can't help but think of the horrifying ramifications in the concern for "what is right." What do we overlook? What do we fail to see? Most commentators envision Jesus as the one that turns this scenario on its head. It's not about boundaries, or what is right. Jesus concerns himself with crossing boundaries to reinterpret the inclusive Kingdom of God, where all are welcomed. There are exciting ways to take this which my own denomination has tried to embody. We claim that "no matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." This is how we understand Jesus' message.

Heck. This is how I understand the world. This is the tradition that I have been handed from my elders. This is what I know. But, I really struggle with embodying this faith. As I tour our nation interviewing at so many exciting communities of faith, the question of age keeps coming up. I look young. I have a great presence with young people, and I am really upbeat. This apparently makes me seem younger. I was just told this yesterday actually. And for some reason, it really bothers me. Though it was not received within the context of an interview, I even got this comment from another blogger.

But, I don't think that we ever fully have it figured out. I think we are always reaching. Always learning. Always trying to understand ourselves and our world. We need the tradition of our elders to understand our past. After all, if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. But, what does it mean for us to cross boundaries in the separation of ages? When will I ever be old enough to stand firmly and say that I do have the answers? When will my life experience be enough? I understand that I'm young, and I feel young. But, when do we cross the boundary into wisdom? My elders have shared with me the same insecurity that I hold at my young age. So, I wonder if this is just a blurred boundary that we desparately want to mark on the timeline of life, but somehow, can't.


Making Connections

Recently, I was talking to a friend who shared the intimate reality of a deep personal wound. My beloved friend fears that this wound will not allow for real, intimate connections. This story broke my heart. I truly want the best for my friend, and I hope that all of these connections come together.

But, my friend is not alone. As a motherless daughter, it seems that I share in this struggle. My struggle is not the same. But, I will always fear not feeling connected. I feel like something separates me in some way from everyone else. That's not true. I have wonderful, meaningful relationships with friends. But, there's something missing in those other relationships. Those intimate ones, I guess.

I feel like I'm eternally waiting for something -- some profoundly simple moment -- when everything will come together. I don't know what that will be. I can't imagine what that might be. And yet, it seems that I'm always waiting for it.

But, that's exactly what happens for Tsotsi (which I finally saw tonight). Tsotsi has spent his life running with the wrong crowd. His world is filled with violence and lack of connection. He's a gang leader until one day his crimes bring him to a child. It's the most simple thing in the world. He steals a car with a child in it (and I'm not trying to ruin the movie for you). And suddenly, everything changes. Connections begin to be made. Those broken parts from his childhood begin to heal. It's wonderfully, mysteriously beautiful. It's the kind of healing we all long for.

And it's this healing that reminds me of the Christmas story. Go figure. Aren't I just the preacher lady? But seriously, it's a baby. A beautiful, perfect creation of God who is dependent upon Tsotsi for care. The intense vulnerability might not seem like a fair parallel to the Christmas story. But, isn't that what is so mysterious about the narrative of a little child born of a woman filled with the image of God? And we -- if we allow ourselves to become part of that reality -- can be nothing but vulnerable. We can see the connection in things, and we can begin to heal in our own hearts because this child offers something that we are so afraid to see in ourselves, in each other and in our world. But, there it is. Right there. Isn't it just as the carol sings, "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."?


Lost Creativity

An Arab Artist Says All the World Really Isn’t a Stage
Published: August 19, 2006

THERE was a time, when he was a young man, Duraid Lahham said, that he thought he might help change the world with his movies. Not anymore. Now, he says over and over, art is useless as a tool for political change.

Art cannot change anyone’s mind, he says. It never caused a terrorist to have second thoughts, never transformed a dictator into a democrat. In fact, he says, it never did much but entertain.

This was one of the saddest articles that I have read recently. I was thinking about it again today after reading it last week. It seems so surprising -- and upsetting -- that the arts don't have any power for transformation. Art has been one of the few places where people of all places and times have had true freedom of expression. Through song, dance, theatre and paint, artists have found the courage to challenge the horrors of the world. Artists have spoken out about war, governments, racism, oppression, poverty and too many other injustices to name. In an area of the world that struggles with so much injustice, has art really lost its power? Or has David Lahham lost hope?

And what happens when artists lose hope in the world? Or worse, in the power of creative action? If we are no longer brave enough to paint, produce and perform, then I fear we will lose our truest voices. If we lose our creativity, it seems that we have lost the possibility to dream. And if we are no longer creating and dreaming of a new creation, then truly hope has been lost. I suppose then Mr. Lahham is right. I can only pray that hope has not been lost in the Middle East, or anywhere else in our wonderful world. It is my deepest prayer that hope is not lost. It stirs in me the desire to paint again. Hope can never be lost, just hidden. O God, I pray.


Remember Taco Bell?

The UCC (and many other denominations) rallied around the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida to ensure that justice was realized. Taco Bell was the culprit. They were underpaying -- to the point of near slavery (and "near" could be erased) -- their workers. Justice was realized and the workers were compensated for their losses. I admit that I do not remember all of the details. But, it's an amazing story. This I can promise. Just remember Margaret Mead's words.

Now, the problem is not over. Another small group of people is needed, as justice is still a dream. This time, it's McDonalds and their tomato pickers. They earn 40 to 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, a rate that has not risen significantly in nearly 30 years. It actually makes me sick that this is possible. A good day offers a payment of $50 for two tons of tomatoes. Remember that story in Matthew 20 with the workers in the field? This isn't a question of genorosity. This is a matter of justice. A small group of loving people is required for the support of these workers where slavery is a true reality.

Sigh. So, what can a small group of people do? We can only ask. And we must turn to the Immokalee workers themselves, as they are the true visionaries of justice for their own reality. Check out what they have to say and take a step to remember the least of these: http://www.ciw-online.org/tools.html.

To Seek Justice...

My faith used to be demonstrated in my justice seeking. It's how I understood the world. I'm not sure where this came from, but it's how it happened. Maybe it happened while I was travelling to Nicaragua. Maybe I picked it up from the progressive context of my high school where we all proudly wore rainbow colored triangles announcing that "All are created equal." To seek justice was just who I was. It made sense.

And I got into all kinds of justice-seeking work, as might be evident here in my blog. I drink fair trade coffee. I drive a hybrid (which has yet to appear on my blog). I try to be aware of what it means for me to be a consumer of McDonalds or Verizon Wireless. It's caused me to do other more radical things that don't appear on my blog, but I consider myself to be tame in the crowd of my social justice friends. It's funny actually, as I think that I'm kinda a social justice slacker these days. I don't think that I do enough. I wish I did more. I don't do more, but I wish I did. Alas.

But, I'm also in the middle of a job search and every so often I get a careful, prayerful question about my justice work. And this question makes me cringe. I must admit that I'm a little indignent. How could I not to this work? It's what I feel called to do. So, I have to admit that I don't think we should make excuses about the work that we have done because there were good reasons -- reasons that may no longer be clear in today's context -- that I made the choices that I made. I'm not always sure that I would do the same thing. And yet, I don't think that should matter. This is where I become an idealist. I hope that church does not judge the actions we have chosen but instead understands the prayerful discernment of a group of people trying to do God's work. We don't do this work alone. We can't. We try to work together to find ways to realize God's Realm. But, it seems that there will always be some who judge and this I can't understand.

In the context of today's world, it seems that religion and politics can no longer be separated. I don't like to make my politics known. I have not written anything partisan in this blog. Indeed, I have demonstrated my distrust and disapproval of President Bush's action. But, this is not a partisan action. It says nothing of my political bias. Instead, it speaks to my religious core. I don't approve of the misuse of theology within the political realm. Indeed, I don't agree with President Bush's theology and perhaps this biases me too greatly. But, my faith calls me to seek justice. There is no mistake about this. My religious understanding is that Jesus challenges me to extend my family to know no bounds. In this boundless family, I am to offer extra love to the least of these, no matter who they are. There will be forces -- whatever they may be -- outside of the Realm of God that belittle, ignore and abuse the least of these. I name the people and places that I see in this light. You may choose others. But, my faith calls me to love them. And for this, I will not be judged. It frustrates me that there are others that don't want to offer this radical love -- the kind of love that Jesus offers. But, I shall not judge, until you judge me.


Coffee Wars

Last week, on one of my many coffee stops while I drove up and down the East Coast, I was waiting for my coffee at Dunkin' Donuts to notice something surprising above the donut case. Ok, yeah, I got a donut. Busted. But, that's not the point. Above the case, there was this little sign that proudly announced that all Dunkin' Donuts espresso products are fair trade. Quite frankly, I'm astonished.

But sure enough, there it is on their website. Apparently, Dunkies is the first national brand to exclusively serve fair trade espresso beans. Oh, and while we are at it, it's ESPRESSO, not expresso. There is nothing fast about it. There is no X. It's an Italian word, and it is eSpresso. Thank you. Spending the time that I spent in Italy, I have some issues with Americanization of the language. But, we're all clear now.

So back to Dunkies. This is kinda hard for me, as I sit here even now drinking my Starbucks Venti Non-fat Latte. I love Starbucks. I worked there for about 5 months and while I struggle with their branding and the fact that they are on every single corner thereby destroying the smaller stores that I adore so much, they treat their employees really well. They understand that living wage issues (and are closer than most at providing one) and the importance of health insurance. They are invested in giving back to their communities. Though they are a corporation, they are doing some prophetic things that other companies don't bother with. But, they do not have fair trade coffee. Ok, they have two brands of fair trade coffee that are always buried in the bottom of the display. They are the most expensive beans, and aren't so great actually. But, as far as justice-seeking goes for a company with a store on every Main Street USA (or maybe 2 stores), fair trade coffee should be a given. I really struggle with this. And it seems that I might just have to switch to Dunkies. Sigh.

But, just as I drink it at home, you can too. Have a cup of justice at home, no matter where you drink your java on the streets. Here are some of the possibilities:

Peace Coffee https://www.peacecoffee.com/
Dean's Beans http://www.deansbeans.com/ (this is where I get mine)
Equal Exchange http://www.equalexchange.com/


Can you really leave church?

I love Barbara Brown Taylor. I love her sermons. I love her magical use of words. She's the kind of preacher that I aspire to be. Or at least, I did... until I read her new book. Now, I'm not so sure.

Don't you hate when your bubble gets burst and suddenly your heroes aren't so fantastic? I felt guilty about this until I had dinner with my friend Sarah last week. She had also just finished Taylor's new book. And we both laughed over our sangria as we shrugged and said, "Eh. Not so great."

Taylor has a couple brilliant insights, one that I actually use in a sermon below. But, it's not what I hope for. It's not what I want to hear right now. It actually kinda pisses me off that it is suddenly ok to leave church. I admit that I have a bias. I'm entering into the church. I'm just beginning. It's all fresh and new and I want prefection. But, when church isn't shiny and new, do we really throw in the towel? Maybe that's not fair. That's not exactly what Talyor does. She understands a new calling to teach, which is something that I think our churches need to understand. As clergy, we need to be attentive to the fact that God is still speaking. God is calling us to do something new, hopefully. And sometimes, that's not in the church. But, church gets in you. You can never leave the church. And I feel like Taylor misses that point.

Progressive Christians have a tendency to complain about institutions. The church is not what should be. Sure. We all know that. It should be living closer into Jesus' teachings, but we are the whole people of God, struggling with the fact that we have different understandings of how things should be. There are bound to be problems. There are going to be issues that prevent us from moving forward -- wherever that might be. But, when church (or other insitutions, like say government) fail us, do we leave them? Do we become outsiders? Or do we sit down at the table with the whole people of God and ask serious questions -- prayerful, hopeful questions -- about where we should be going? Or do we just leave?

I'm not sure that this is really fair to Taylor. I can't help that I'm tainted by my own opinions. It makes it hard for me to understand where she is coming from. But then again, as my friend Sarah said, her theology is just not where mine lies. We don't see the same vision of Jesus. And perhaps this is the very problem. Perhaps this is the same reason that I struggle with some evangelical organizations -- Christian organizations pushing toward prophetic action. But, I can't help but wonder about their theology. Does it matter? I don't know.


This I Believe

I recently preached this sermon, entitled This I Believe, based upon the gospel lection for this week: John 6:35, 41-51.

I have a favorite radio program, perhaps not an unsurprising one for a minister type. It airs on Monday mornings on NPR, at a time that I am rarely by a radio. Through downloaded podcasts, I enjoy This I Believe, which from its very beginning has sought "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs.” Anyone can offer an essay and they get to read it on the air. I turned to the archives of This I Believe as I thought I would surely discover the story of someone that had started their story with the brave words, “I am.”

And, these are brave words. These are very brave words. These brave words are the answer to the interview question that I most dread from search committees. Tell us something about yourself, they ask. I am… I pause. I don’t know how to continue with this phrase. I am… I stutter. I feel that I need to perform miracles to prove myself. But, Jesus doesn’t perform a miracle to the challenging crowd. He boldly says, Ego eimi. I AM. He continues this bold statement: I am the bread of life.

Bread? Really? I’m not even sure how to begin to talk about bread. It’s… it’s… the appropriate measure of flour and water with a dash of yeast to create this loaf that is so basic to our daily living. So basic that I don’t even know how to describe it. So basic that half of our nation is rejecting it from their diet to embrace a low-carb lifestyle. So basic that the crowd doesn’t stop to question. “Bread really was a matter of life.”

And to this bread-eating crowd, Jesus says, Ego eimi. Jesus’ language is just strange. But, it’s not really the fact that he’s calling himself bread. For a crowd that ate mostly bread, the metaphor of bread translates easily. Instead, I imagine that this crowd would have stumbled over the first part of this sentence. Ego eimi. In these two words, Jesus claims an unmistakable connection to God. These two words are not spoken unless referring to the divine. With a mere two words, Jesus tells us who he is.

And knowing the power of Ego eimi, it seems that I should pick up my pen and write my own essay for This I Believe. But, where would I start? Maybe I’m placing too much weight on these words. Maybe I shouldn’t be searching through these words in the Gospel of John to begin my statement of belief. I mean, could I really start with the revelation of a doughy divinity or a crusty Christ?

Maybe instead, I should instead turn to the flesh that John offers at the end of this passage. The part where Jesus says,

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Flesh. I’m not sure that it’s really any better than bread. But, it is this flesh that returns us to the person of Jesus. It’s this flesh that reminds me of the wondrous event that began John’s gospel story: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Not to take away from the power of these words in the sixth chapter, but these nine words in the very first chapter of John embody the holy mystery of Ego eimi. This I Believe. In these nine words, I can discover the wonder of my own hands, of a baby’s soft touch, of my grandmother’s papery skin, of my sister’s new sunburn and of you.

This I Believe. Not because bread isn’t basic to us. Not because I am not hungry. But because, I am a woman with flesh, as you have flesh. And the wonder that Jesus had flesh that was baby soft and grew to be sunburned in the hot sun reminds me of God’s image in each of us.

But, is this revelation enough to begin my essay for This I Believe? I am… I still stutter. Or do we join the crowd in shock that someone has the audacity to assume these divine words for themselves? It’s a big jump, and I admit I’m not sure if I’m ready to claim Ego eimi for myself. After all, these are brave words. These are divine words. But, I wonder if we could claim it together.

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders what would happen “if people were invited [to church] to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?” Maybe this is what it means to claim Ego eimi together. It’s within our very flesh. We already know a whole lot about God. We encounter God in the most mundane and ordinary places. We encounter God in our very own flesh.

And, I wonder what would happen if we shared these experiences with each other. Instead of looking up to heaven to find a loaf of bread appearing from the skies, could we touch our own skin? Sitting in these pews, could we hold hands? Embedded in these cells, in these wrinkles and creases, in these calluses and blisters, in these cuts and scars, could we feel the mystery that began John’s gospel story in our very own flesh?

In our very own flesh, buried beneath these layers of skin, we have already touched and felt the mysterious wonder of the divine. We have already found how "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs.” We have found it in our own flesh. We have found it in the boldness of the Christ that first claimed Ego eimi, and invites us to discover its mystery in our very own flesh. This I Believe.


Becoming Completely Unraveled

Whoever wrote the definition for discernment on Wikipedia is killing me, hopefully only metaphorically. My favorite part explains:

All moral conduct may be summed up in the rule: avoid evil and do good.

If we are boiling discernment down to good versus evil, then I fear that we are really in trouble. To separate good from evil just isn't possible. It's all jumbled up and confused. No one nor nothing is completely good, nor is anything totally evil. The Catholic Church might have some teachings that differ from my theological perspective. I know, original sin, fallen humanity. I get it. I've heard it before. But, Adam was pretty fabulous when God breathed life into him so can he really be all that bad? I mean, God breathed in him people! That's a man I would like to meet. So, let's step away from the narrow limitations of good and evil before I get too far off-track. Instead, let's ponder what discernment is about. In striking contrast to Wikipedia, Nora Gallagher was offered the wisdom that:

Discernment is about cleaning up the clutter to find the thread.

The dorky Bible student within me wants to do a word study on the word thread. What is that thread? Is it a human thread? Is it the thread that connects us all? And I get that. I can see my mother's sewing kit, which somehow is never tidy. There are threads going everywhere in every different color. And when you finally find the color that you are looking for, you come to the sad realization that it's twisted and tied among 40 other strands of thread. So, you sit there and painstakingly unwind and unravel each piece until finally the thread is liberated. Alleluia! And it happens in jewlery boxes too. Always when I want to wear this one particular necklace (which seems to be a cross more and more these days), it's twisted and tied among every other item in the box. The necklace wants to wear earrings and bracelets and rings. It just wants to be all wrapped up in their beauty, but I just want to wear my freakin' necklace so I have to sit there and unravel.

Unraveling these threads isn't easy. It's so slow and your fingers just seem so big and awkward. I usually get really frustrated and start muttering mean things like my words will change the situation. I get really, really frustrated. Sometimes, I even give up. And this -- this -- is exactly what discernment is. It's wrestling with those threads and trying to get one free. The trick is, you don't know which one. Any one of those threads could be the right one. I have no idea which chain goes to which necklace and I'm just struggling to get a little bit of clarity. This is what discernment is all about.

No one tells you what it will be like. No one tells you that waiting for a call will seem like one of the hardest things you have ever done. No one tells you how much you will want to give up completely and just let the threads be. No one tells you how much you will love each of those threads and want to liberate them all.


Are you kidding?

First of all, how is this news?

Then I must inquire, how are there such people out there that don't understand that the current administration supports this theology? In their thinking, this is what is supposed to happen in the Middle East. My stomach turns.