Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The understory

John 20: 1-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 21, 2019 – Easter Sunday 

While I was on sabbatical I had the good fortune to experience the onset of spring numerous times. In the four weeks I was in Arizona the weather and the landscape went from cold and about eight inches of snow to upper sixties, blooming ocotillo, barrel, and hedgehog cactuses, and desert golden poppies. As I made my way east from Sedona to Albuquerque to Amarillo to Oklahoma City to Little Rock and Nashville and Hendersonville, NC I saw budding and blooming trees, greening grass, and clumps of daffodils and other early bloomers. On a side trip to Atlanta with Glenna Shepherd I saw spring full-blown in late March: magnolias, azaleas, camellias, even a wild rose bush all in full bloom.

As I drove north from Hendersonville through Asheville and into the Pisgah National Forest, I witnessed the greening understory of the deep, mountainous woods. Early spring is such a tender time. How brave is the mountain laurel and viburnum and yellowroot, and wildflowers like spring beauty and bloodroot and trillium, and green plants like fiddlehead ferns and skunk cabbage when nights are still chilly and the threat of snow and frost is still present.

Anything can happen to that unprotected understory, those first green leaves and early bloomers. One year in Connecticut, on our annual Rosh Hashanah apple picking trip, as the kids and I rolled up to the entrance to the orchard we were told “no apples this fall”. Earlier that year in the spring, there had been a couple of very warm days and all the apple trees blossomed seemingly at once, the flowers fat with their nectar. All it took was a hard frost to freeze that nectar and render it useless. Every time I see the first tender green of spring I think of how much depends on those early few weeks.

And so it was during the third spring I witnessed that I drove through the Pisgah National Forest to Bakersville, NC to find my father’s house. I hadn’t been there since my father died in April of 1985 and I had come back to say goodbye in June after my sophomore year of college. I struggled to identify anything that might have been familiar: landmarks, towns, businesses. I began to cry as I drove up and down the hilly roads and really had no idea why. “Woman, why do you weep?” Memories of visits during summer break and school vacations came flooding back and the understories of our relationship. The tears just rolled down my face.

I questioned my motives. “Why am I doing this?” I knew I would not be able to find any sign of a grave on the property. Half of my father’s ashes were buried behind the house with only a simple rock to mark the space. My stepmother sold the house in 1990 and moved to California. The other half of my father’s ashes are buried in Norwell, MA, beneath a copse of pine trees behind the church where he got sober and started a crisis intervention ministry, the same church where I was ordained.

Why am I doing this? Why do I seek the living among the dead? My father isn’t there. Everything is so unlike how I remember it. It reminds me of invitations to visit the Holy Land. See where Jesus walked; visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church which contains the both the site of the crucifixion and the tomb where he was buried; or the Church of the Nativity built over the cave venerated as the birthplace of Jesus. How could they know hundreds of years later where these events actually took place?

It’s only been 34 years for me and I can’t remember how to find my father’s house. Earlier in March I visited my brother in Tucson and we went on Google Earth to see if we could follow the road east out of Bakersville and find our way to the house. We had no address. All our dad had was a mailing address: box number #326A, Rural Route 4. We zoomed in and followed the road but we couldn’t be sure.

When I got to town (population 459 souls) I went to the Bakersville town hall, a little storefront near where the two main roads crossed. The person behind the desk directed me to the Mitchell County Register of Deeds, located down the street and around the corner. Over the course of an hour the clerk and I searched huge books of deed records to find who had last purchased the house. As it happens, the people who bought the house in 1990 still owned it. I googled their names and found them in the white pages. The house now had an address.

My dad's house, June 1985

But it still had a long rocky, bumpy dirt road leading up to it. I parked at the bottom of the driveway so that I wouldn’t startle the owners or damage my little car. When I got up to the fence, two dogs announced my presence. An older woman came out to meet me. I tried to look as harmless as I could.

I told her my father and stepmother built the house, that I hadn’t been back since 1985, and I wanted to see if it was still here. She apologized for the condition of the house, that they hadn’t kept up with maintenance in a while. I was just thrilled to find it still there. It’s such an odd house in some ways. The hot water is heated in large black-painted tanks behind the skylights in the roof. My stepmother had insisted on a kitchen with a cast-iron cook stove. All of the front rooms have sliding glass doors. It took my stepmother 5 years to sell it. The couple that lives there now were the only people who looked at the house. She said yes when I asked if I could take a photo. She apologized again and said that they love the house, that they love living there. I reassured her and said it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit, careworn and much-loved. I thanked her and looked at the house one last time before walking back to my car.

March 25, 2019

Like the season of spring and that tenuous understory, the resurrection isn’t always triumphant and joyous. It can take time. At times it can feel quite vulnerable and emotional. It doesn’t have to make sense. Sometimes we have to work at it, work on ourselves, have patience, be forgiving, and receive what is offered.

It doesn’t always happen where and when we think it will or hope for. Even when we give up on resurrection, sometimes it surprises us. And yet the resurrection isn’t just for us or about us and our lives. The story of one who is Love enfleshed, Love incarnate, is the human story. A story of pain and sorrow. A story of knowing and being known. A story of healing and wholeness and restoration. A story of justice and compassion. A story of cruelty, abandonment, rejection, betrayal and extravagant grace. A story in which death does not have the last word but rather it is the beginning of another journey. A story in which Love is made visible, real, unbreakable, resilient. A story that can take place anytime, anywhere, in any life.

Jesus is born wherever the vulnerable and marginalized are lifted up and liberated, wherever there is tender new life, whenever we encounter what is good and holy and true in the flesh.

Jesus is crucified whenever human flesh is abandoned in its suffering, wherever people can’t afford their healthcare, their heating and grocery bills, or a safe place to live, whenever queer or trans or black or brown flesh is disbelieved, disowned, dishonored, destroyed, discriminated against. Jesus is crucified when the earth and its creatures are abandoned in their suffering, wherever plastic chokes the earth, wherever water is not clean enough to drink, whenever a lifeform suffers because of human convenience.

Jesus is harrowing his way through hell when we fight for each other’s wholeness and bear each other’s injustice, when we make amends for our wrongs and forgive ourselves and others, when we restore even one who was unjustly accused, who suffered for their human rights, dignity and worth, when we move to restore the earth to beauty and balance.

Jesus is raised whenever hate and judgment have no power over us, when we let go of toxic thinking and behavior, when we celebrate and embrace our belovedness and that of all flesh, when we are freed from our fears and released to love.

Love is our understory, that fragile quality of being alive, in which we’re not sure what’s going to happen, but we know that love makes all the difference.


Benediction – by Howard Thurman

Give me the courage to live!
Really live– not merely exist.
Live dangerously,
Scorning risk!
Live honestly,
Daring the truth–
Particularly the truth of myself!
Live resiliently–
Ever changing, ever growing, ever adapting.
Enduring the pain of change
As though ’twere the travail of birth.
Give me the courage to live,
Give me the strength to be free
And endure the burden of freedom
And the loneliness of those without chains;
Let me not be trapped by success,
Nor by failure, nor pleasure, nor grief,
Nor malice, nor praise, nor remorse!

Give me the courage to go on!
Facing all that waits on the trail–
Going eagerly, joyously on,
And paying my way as I go,
Without anger or fear or regret
Taking what life gives,
Spending myself to the full,
Dead high, spirit winged, like a god–
On… on… till the shadows draw close.
Then even when darkness shuts down,
And I go out alone as I came,
Naked and blind as I came–
Even then, gracious God, hear my prayer:
Give me the courage to live!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

We, the people

Luke 19: 28-40
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 14, 2019 – Palm Sunday 

Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time

On Palm Sunday, when I hear the word ‘hosanna’, which means ‘save us’, it reminds me of the song “Save the People” from “Godspell”. Stephen Schwartz adapted the lyrics for many of the songs for “Godspell” from an older version of the Episcopal hymnal, so the language is pretty male-centered. Even though the hymn was updated by the Friends or Quakers, the language is still exclusive, so I did some editing. Even so, it’s a little wonky, so I beg your forgiveness.

When will you save the people
Oh, God of Mercy, when?
Not states and corporations!
but human beings, them!
Flowers of your heart, O God, are they
Let them not pass, like weeds, away
Their heritage a sunless day
God save the people!

Shall crime bring crime forever
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it your will, Creator,
That we shall toil for wrong?
'No!' say the mountains
'No!' say the skies
The clouded sun shall brightly rise
And songs be heard instead of sighs
God save the people!

When will you save the people
Oh, God of Mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people
All human beings, them!
God save the people, for yours we are
Your children, as your angels, fair
From vice, oppression, and despair,

God save the people,
God save the people,
God save the people!

It seems as though it is part of our human nature to look for a savior to deliver us from our present pain, fear or despair, or to stand as a guard against a possible harrowing future. Take for example, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There are memes depicting her safely cocooned in bubble wrap or with a crown askew on her head, hashtag #NotoriousRBG—a play on rapper Notorious B.I.G. I recently wrote on my blog, “Every time she has a medical procedure, we hold our breath and pray, even those who don't usually pray. Or believe in God. We're scared to death what will happen without her on the Supreme Court.

“We've elevated her to icon status with a cult following. Which is the very essence of idolatry. So what, you might say. These are scary times, you might say. And yet it's the same behavior, the same attitude of a Donald Trump supporter. Or folks who voted for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Or any of those throwing their hat into the 2020 presidential race. When we look to any one person and give them messiah status (I'm looking at Jesus, too), expecting that one person can make all the difference in the saving of the world, we have handed over our will, our agency, our heart, and our brains to the lowest bidder.

“On the flip side, we can't lean solely on our own will, agency, heart and brains, or our own clan or cohort, to get the job done. It takes a village to save a village. It takes a nation to save a nation. It takes a world to save a world. 

“Ubuntu: I am because we are. My identity is connected to your identity. My liberty is connected to your liberty. It's important that I say unequivocally who I am, you say unabashedly who you are, but at some point we have to move to who we are, this human tribe, that we're in this together, because our future depends on it.”

Jesus saved people with love, in justice ways and in peace-filled ways, but for the most part he did it one vulnerable, marginalized person at a time. And most of the time he said it was their faith that saved them. Their hope. Their courage. Their willingness to make the first move.

The best way to say all of this is with a story. It’s a true story. It happened just this past week in Ontario, Canada. And the author, Erynn Brook, gave me permission to share it with you.

I was on my way home after work. It’s about 10pm, and the subway is pulling up to my stop. I’ve been stressed about my own stuff for days now and I’m in my little bubble and just as I stand up the girl across from me starts talking. 

She’d been looking at me and I hadn’t really noticed. Her lips were barely moving, but I took out one earbud and said “pardon?” And she said “are you getting off soon?” And I said yes. The train was mostly empty. But then I noticed she was holding a laminated sheet of paper out. 

At the top it said “my seizure plan”. I blinked at it then looked up at her. “Are you having a seizure now?” I asked. “No, but I’m about to.” She looked down at the monitor on her finger. “Can you sit with me until your stop?” She asked. 

She mentioned her stop was 3 stops away. I asked if she would like me to ride with her to her stop. She said she didn’t want to bother me. I asked what she would do when I got off, she kinda shrugged and said “ask someone else. Maybe her? She looks nice. Can you ask her for me?” 

Then she seized. 

She had already moved her purse out of the way and folded her scarf in a place to catch her head as she slumped over. I sat next to her and read her seizure plan. 

She’s 18. 

I check my phone and start timing her seizure. I sit down. My stop comes and goes. 

This seizure plan paper is like an anchor. It says what to do, what not to do, how long seizures might last, what medication she takes if they last too long, what steps to take if she becomes non-responsive. She comes out after 3 minutes.

I tell her I’m just going to ride the subway with her to her stop, and if we miss it, don’t worry, I’ll sit with her until the end of the line if need be and we’ll just make the trip back together. She thanks me. I ask if she has her medication on her. She says she has one left. 

She mentions that she needs to get a prescription refill. I say prescription refills are so annoying. She nods a bit, tells me a little bit about how the monitor on her finger works, and seizes again. I go back to reading the seizure plan. I’ve already read it but it’s an anchor. 

It says she gets these seizures 1-4 times a day, and each episode lasts 10-60 mins. 

Just think about that for a second. Think about being randomly completely vulnerable multiple times a day, and this is just… every day. 

She comes out close to her stop. I ask her if she wants to get off. And she says “I’m just so tired, I want to go home.” 

The worst thing I could’ve done to this girl in this moment was call emergency services. She’s so close to home. We get off at her stop and sit for a bit. 

She places her folded scarf on the back of the chair and positions herself just so. She tells me “if it gets real bad I may have to lie down on the floor.” And seizes again. I put my stuff down and stand so I can catch her if she slips off the chair. 

... I’m either sitting with her until she’s completely ready to get up and walk away on her own or we’re gonna move together in shifts until she gets to her front door. 

There’s no way I’m leaving an 18 year old on a subway platform alone. 

She just needs to make it up the stairs. She says her condo is right outside the exit. Offer to walk her up the stairs, at least. She asks if I’m sure and says again that she doesn’t want to bother me. We go slow and chat. This is her first seizure today, but yesterday she had 2. 

We get to the barrier and I say. “I’d like to walk you to your building door if you’ll let me.” She protests again, but not much. I reassure her that I don’t want to come inside or anything, I’d just like to make sure she gets home safe and I’ll leave once she’s in the building. 

A few times she mentions how tired she is, and how close to home she is. Going up these stairs we keep an eye on her monitor. A train goes by and she covers her ears. Loud noises are a trigger for her. I ask if fluorescent lights are too, she nods. We make it out of the station. 

She tells me that one of her seizures yesterday happened at the gym. THE GYM! I don’t even go to the gym and I have way less barriers getting to the gym or being at the gym than she does. 

This girl is just living her life with a laminated paper as her only defense. 

I walk her to her building door and open it for her. She says “thank you for staying with me and getting me home safe.” I say “of course”, and we wave goodbye. Her scarf is draped around her shoulders now. She waves through the lobby window as she walks, slowly, to the elevator. 

I have so many feelings. And they keep coming back to that scarf. That’s the image I see. How it was pre-folded before she even asked for help. How she positioned herself to fall on the scarf pillow again and again. 

She was fully prepared to go it alone. I didn’t help her, not really. My job was to make sure that no one interrupted her getting to her door. 

She was just trying to get home. 

It’s not a story about me being a good person. It’s not a story about how brave she is (though she clearly is), it’s a story about human needs, through the lens of disability, and how accessibility is not the same as acceptance or community care. 

We’re taught to call 911 when something looks bad and we don’t know what it is. And if I hadn’t heard her, if she didn’t have that laminated paper, maybe I would’ve done that when she started seizing. 

And this girl who’s just trying to go home because this is her daily life, would’ve been burdened with loud noises and fluorescent lights and maybe an ambulance trip further from her destination and a hospital bill and who knows what else, when she just needed to go home. 

This girl has seizures more reliably than I eat breakfast. 

And she’s just out there living her life as best she can. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about all the ways she was vulnerable, in public, alone, at night, all the dangers we associate with those things. 

There is no policy or program structure that addresses the high rates of assault for disabled folks.  Sexual violence, violent crimes, domestic violence, are all statistically more likely to happen to people with disabilities. 

I’m already pre-wired to go into big sister/soccer mom mode anywhere, any time, for anyone. If I had a bus I’d just be Designated Driver and make sure everyone got home from the bar okay. 

But… we don’t build our world that way. We built it this way. 

We built a world where an 18 year old who gets seizures 1-4 times a day, is taking the subway home, alone, and she folds her scarf into a pillow before asking a stranger to sit with her until the next stop. Not her own stop. Not to help her home. Just enough to not inconvenience. 

We built a world where I could hit an emergency alarm button and walk off at my stop, feeling like I just saved this girl’s life, who didn’t need saving, without losing a minute of my day, if I wanted to. We built a world for convenience, not community. 

Don’t get me wrong, emergency services are great and we should use them when we need to. That’s not the point. The point is that scarf. That piece of paper, and the way she said “I’ll ask someone else when you leave. Maybe her? She looks nice.” 

It took maybe 30 minutes out of my day to make sure she got home. And she didn’t need me at all. She got there on her own.

I guess I looked nice too. But she didn’t want to ask too much. She didn’t want to ask me to stay with her an extra 3 stops. 

Accommodation is the bare minimum. If I sat with her until my stop and then left, that’s what accommodation looks like.

It’s not good enough. Not for me, not for her, not for community and not for our world. 

Build something better, folks. Build a better world.

When will you save the people, O God of mercy, when? The people, Lord, the people, all human beings, them?

We, the people. I still believe that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The better world begins with us. One vulnerable, marginalized person at a time, just like the love of Jesus. Help us, Jesus, to save ourselves and each other.


Monday, April 8, 2019

Last day

Japanese Maple

Yesterday afternoon I spent some time outside taking the dead limbs and twigs off of our Japanese maple tree.  I had been wanting to do this for some time but I have been reluctant because I was afraid of damaging the tree.  I thought I would do it during the winter when it was dormant but on the days I had time it would be too cold.  Then I went on a road trip for six and a half weeks.  By the time I returned the tree was beginning to bud.  But David reassured me that the tree would be fine.  Now it would be able to put more energy into the limbs that were budding.

I moved around the tree clockwise, removing the dead branches with my bare hands, appreciating the satisfying crunch as the dross came away easily.  As I reached in to grab a handful of twigs, my forearms were scratched as though a stray cat had gotten the better of me.  I made piles of dry twigs and limbs on the grass as I went around the tree.  In my right hand I held at the ready a pair of lopping shears to break off the larger branches.  To get at the branches under the canopy I had to stand underneath the tree; I'm 5'2'' so it was a close fit.

As I stood beneath the tree, looking up at both the greening limbs and the dead, dry, gray ones, I realized that this was a perfect spiritual exercise and metaphor for my last day of sabbatical: in a time of transition between dormancy and rebirth, to trim away what is not needed so that life may flourish, energy may flow.  We all need to do this from time to time, to step back from our lives, rest, reflect, contemplate what we could do without, what is not serving us or the world, and then let it go, pick up the pieces, clean up the mess, put things in their proper place.

But only you can decide when to do this, in your own time, in your own way, when you are ready.  And by all means, ask for help.  I'm here if you need me.  None of us gets through this life alone no matter how strong we are.

I am so very thankful for this time of sabbath, that I work with a congregation that values sabbatical, all that it can entail, folks who give me the freedom to choose how I will spend it.

Someone asked me if I am renewed, rested, re-energized, ready for more. I don't know about that; it feels like there will never be enough sleep for the world we live in now. I hope that I am a bit wiser, that I will take more time to think, to contemplate, to consider my emotions, my limits, my dreams, and to nurture my hopes daily.  Take time to cry when needed.  Read more.  Walk more.  See and do art more.  Play my Native American wood flutes more.  And slow the heck down.  Maybe when I do these things more, I'll be ready for more.

One day at a time, folks.  It's all we really have.

Peace be with you.