Tuesday, June 30, 2009

To be perfectly honest

This past Sunday we celebrated the Affirmands--and their "graduation" from the Affirmation program. It was quite a wonderful worship service which they helped plan and write and lead. What follows is the sermon I preached that day -- based on Mark 5:24-34.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine told me this story that she heard from her friend about these friends who were friends of her friend… So what’s that…like 5-6 degrees of separation? 3rd party information and a half…? But anyway… As I heard it, this young couple had a 5 year old daughter when the mom gave birth to their second child. This was kind of your typical American family, loving, caring, hard working, probably not that different from you, except that they didn’t really go to church, they weren’t religious people at all. But, almost as soon as they brought the new baby home from the hospital, the 5 year old started asking the parents if she could spend some time alone with the baby. The parents asked why and the little girl said she just wanted to talk. Well, of course these parents had read enough books about sibling jealousy when babies are born to be a little freaked out by this…so they gave her all kinds of excuses and kept trying to distract the 5 year old from this idea, but nothing worked. The little girl kept asking. Finally, the parents figured out how they could give the girl what she wanted without putting the baby in danger. They hooked up the baby monitor and let their 5 year old go into the room with the baby by herself while the baby lay in her crib. And then they listened in on the monitor from the other room, ready to run to the rescue if they needed to. And as the little girl went into the room and stood next to the crib this is what the parents head her say to the baby, “Please, tell me about God. I’m starting to forget.”

Who knows whether this story is true. And it may raise all kinds of red theological flags for you if you’re a person who is into those sorts of things. But there is a truth here that resonates with me all the same: our kids know a lot about God from the word “Go.” Our kids have wisdom that we in our years of life experience, in our culturally conditioned, well-coifed, well schooled, pulled together lives have sometimes lost. They have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen. If we’re willing to be taught.

So as much as anything, as I’ve led Alaina, Anna, Burnley, Megan, Hannah, Clarke, Lauren and McKenzee in Affirmation this year, I’ve tried to be attentive. I’ve tried to listen. Not just to the words they say. But to everything between the words. And to what God may be trying to show me through them.

Of course, one of the things I’ve noticed is they have the ability to play at the drop of a hat. To do things with abandon—if you have any doubt about that, just leave them alone with a can of whipped cream. They also care deeply. And ask questions. They question practically everything in fact. From why we’re sitting at a table for the discussion time to why there’s hell.

Another thing I’ve noticed about them and I’m learning from them is about being honest. These guys can be searingly honest.

Which brings me to our lectionary reading for today from Mark’s gospel. Mark tells us a story about Jesus encounter with an un-named woman who is ill and needs healing. It’s a little story stuck within another story—Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, a rich important man who came to Jesus begging for him to save his dying daughter, when he runs into this woman, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. She wasn’t someone rich and important--she was poor, at the very least, because—as the Bible tells us--she’d spent all her money on doctors. But the doctors hadn’t helped. Nothing had helped. And the thing is, she wasn’t only hurting physically. From what we know about the Jewish law she was living under, a woman who was bleeding was considered unclean. And was supposed to stay away from others so she wouldn’t make them unclean as well. So according to the good church-going people of her day, she was an outcast. She couldn’t go to the temple. She couldn’t meet friends for shopping at the market, or hang out with them for coffee, or go to parties or watch her kids plays sports. She was pretty much stuck at home alone, isolated, in hiding.

So for her to be out in a crowded public place was probably a rarity. And possibly quite brave. The consequences of making someone else unclean could have been quite harsh—some commentary I read said stoning might not have been out of the question. But this woman had heard about Jesus and because she still had a shred of hope for healing, because she was desperate to be let out of solitary confinement, she took a chance, took the risk to be seen. To be touched.

But she wasn’t crazy. She still tried to be a little unobtrusive, you know. She had way too much shame and too much fear, and too much of an instinct for self-preservation to approach Jesus directly. So what she does is blend in, she gets close enough, in the midst of the pushing shoving crowd to touch Jesus, to just, you know, happen to brush the fringe of his robe. Or more likely the fringe of his prayer shawl, the prayer shawl that all good Jewish men of the time wore.

And when she did, with that touch, her bleeding stopped. She felt it in her body. She knew it. Just like that, physically she was totally healed.

Which could have been the end of the story. The woman could have come in secret, been healed in secret, trotted off back to regular life, no one any the worse for the wear. And since Jesus sometimes told people he healed not to tell anyone else about it, you’ve got to wonder, why didn’t he do that this time? Why didn’t he just let it go? He was in a hurry, trying to save a little girl. Why stop and make a big deal of this?

But he did. He did make a big deal. He calls the woman out. He asks who touched him. He asks whoever touched him to step forward and be honest, he challenges the woman to be open about her shame and her need and her disease. And with fear and trembling the woman does come out of hiding, does step forward. Expecting who knows what? More shame? More humiliation? More isolation? Maybe a big huge rock thrown at her?

Of course that’s not what she gets is it? Jesus calls attention to her, yes, but he calls attention to her faith, calls attention to her willingness to risk everything, calls attention to her honesty…after all, she could easily have said, “Touched you? Who me?” and quietly walked home, cured. But she didn’t. She came out of hiding. And Jesus calls her “Daughter.” And he blesses her and tells her to go in peace.

Mostly when I’ve heard this story discussed or preached on, the emphasis is on this woman’s faith. Faith in Jesus power to heal her. And she certainly did have faith. A lot of faith. But not only did she have faith that Jesus could heal her. What I was struck with, reading the scripture this time, reading it after spending the better part of a year with this Affirmation group, was that she had faith that she could be honest with Jesus about who she really was and he wouldn’t shame her or reject her or stone her or send her away.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t always had that kind of faith. The faith that I could be honest, about who I really am, that I didn’t have to pretend to be someone a little more together, a little more knowledgeable, a little more spiritual, a little more perfect, a little more unquestioning. Sometimes in fact, I got the message that I shouldn’t be anywhere close to honest and to be perfectly honest, the place where it seemed like I heard that message the most was from the Church, from the lovely little body of Christ, from Jesus’ representatives here on earth.

Growing up going to a small Baptist Church, we had nothing like this Affirmation program. We were told to accept Christ as our personal savior, get baptized, go to Sunday School and worship services, read the Bible, pray and evangelize, but we weren't taught to think about faith. We did however have the Girl's Auxiliary. Or GAs for short. A program in which 14 and 15 year old girls would spend several months memorizing scriptures and learning about Southern Baptist missionaries and about how to be a good Christian girl and how to become a good Christian woman and at the conclusion of the program, there would be a special ceremony in which the girls recited some “Important Bible Verses” while wearing a long, white gown, and at the end of it all, would get crowned Queen, for their troubles. Mostly what I remember of that experience is that I did fine at the memorizing, it was like passing another test in school. You know…how you memorize stuff for the test and then forget it the day after? And I also remember that the burgeoning feminist in me was totally appalled by the whole "wearing a wedding dress and getting crowned Queen" ceremony. While another part of me was desperately unhappy because I looked so fat and ugly and stupid in the dress and everyone else looked so much prettier.

But nowhere throughout this process, were we encouraged or even allowed to be honest about our faith journey. To be truthful about our struggles. To be open about our thoughts and feelings. We were provided with a nice little mold we were supposed to fill—like those plaster casts of Jesus hands clasped in prayer we used to make in Vacation Bible School. We were taught what a Christian looked like and sounded like and prayed like and talked like, and we were taught that if we couldn’t conform to this picture, we had best go quietly on our way. Or risk getting big huge rocks thrown at us.

The Mentors and Affirmands (who I must admit, I started calling the Mentos) recently spent a full day together in our final retreat of the Affirmation program, talking about our spiritual journeys, talking about our year together and thinking about this worship service. On this day, the Mentos also shared the projects that they’ve been working on this year, as a way of reflecting on their faith journey so far. They wrote songs, they made art, they interviewed people, they made movies, one of them even made a ppt presentation. Not the kind you’re used to seeing at work with thousands of bullet points and unreadable charts and graphs. No this is ppt used for good and not evil. You’ve already heard one of the songs which was written for an Affirmation project. Another song is coming up along with that that ppt presentaion And you’ll also have a chance to see all of the projects during coffee hour today over in Room 100 of Cornerstone.

But on that Saturday retreat, as the kids presented their projects to the whole Affirmation group I have to admit, I was practically in tears after each one. OK, that’s not really true. I was actually in tears. Because the projects these guys created each had so much heart in them, they each had put so much of themselves in them… They were all so different. And they were each so truthful. In these projects the kids were open about their questions. They were truthful about their difficulties understanding what it means to follow Jesus. Truthful about their ambivalence. About not liking church so much all the time, even. They were also honest about their passions, about what moves them. What gets them up in the morning. And they were honest about where they are experiencing God’s grace and presence in their lives.

And when we talked that day about this service, that’s what the Affirmands said they wanted to make sure came through, loud and clear—that’s one of the things they wanted to affirm today: their belief that God wants them to be honest on this journey of faith—honest about their joys and their struggles, honest about what they believe and about their doubts, honest about what they know and honest about their questions, honest about who they really are.

Rght about now, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good Lenora—honesty, who isn’t for honesty. But how much honesty is too much? As we all know, and parents especially know, people can sometimes be too honest. Especially kids, right. Haven’t we all been with young children when they’ve said something that made you cringe. Like you’re in the check out line in the grocery store and they say Mommy why does that man have such a big nose? Or Daddy, why does that lady draw her eyebrows on? Little kids are not hardwired to be good at keeping secrets either. Once when I had a birthday coming up when Hannah was 5 or 6, I was joking with Hannah and asking if they had gotten me a present. And she said Yes. Then she was quick to add, “But it’s not a grill.” Surprise, surprise I did get a grill that birthday—one of those George Foreman electric grills, which Gary had strictly instructed Hannah not to tell me about.

So yes, too much honesty CAN be a dangerous thing. It can be rude. It can keep your from being liked by your peers, it can keep you from fitting in. It can keep people from being surprised on their birthdays. So we try to teach our children to be Mostly honest. To sort of be who they are. And to say what they think and what they feel, sure, but at the right time, in the right situations, with the right people. We teach them to be careful about being too honest.

But I wonder if maybe, just maybe, as adults, our honesty meters are a little too tightly wound, a little too sensitively tuned. They are set too close to the Reveal Nothing end of the scale versus the Say Anything end. With the result that we keep things nice and polite and surfacey with most people and end up in a kind of solitary confinement of our own. We don’t talk too loudly about our sorrows, or our fears, we don’t tell how much money we make, or don’t make, we don’t talk about what we’re doing with our sexuality or admit to our feelings of inadequacy at work or in our marriages or in our child rearing. We don’t talk about our addictions, we remain quiet about our losses, our deep pain. We also sometimes keep quiet about our faith or lack thereof—with people who aren’t so religious we sometimes have a hard time admitting to the depth of our belief. With our friends in the church we sometimes have trouble being open about the depth of our doubts, the amount of our questions.

And we hold back the truth about ourselves because we’re scared, like the woman in Mark’s story, we’re scared of being shamed and humiliated, of being treated as even more of an outcast, or maybe even getting stones thrown at us. We hold back because we want to fit in or if we can’t fit in, we at least would like to blend in. We hold back revealing who we really are because we want to keep everyone happy, and keep conflict at a minimum. We hold back because we believe we will only be loved if we do what’s expected of us, if we look a certain way, act a certain way, believe a certain way, smell a certain way.

When Anne Lamott’s novel Crooked Little Heart came out 12 or more years ago she was touring and I went to a reading at the Women and Children First bookstore to hear her. I was sitting right up near the front and the place was packed. The time came for her to come out to start reading, and it passed and we all waited restlessly. And we waited. And waited. Finally, after about 20 minutes, Anne walked out and sat on a stool in the front. She sat down with her book in hand, but she didn’t open it. She just sat there and cried. She mumbled something about being tired and missing her son and she kept crying. She cried a lot. For a long time. While all of us in this packed bookstore sat watching her.

I had always been a person who was ashamed of crying in public. And yet, here Anne Lamott was, not just crying in public, but crying on stage in public in front of a room full of people. And the funny thing was, instead of being a weird, embarrassing, awkward, just let me out of here moment, it was beautiful, it was holy, it was like this parachute of grace had descended gently over all of us in the room. And instead of looking on her with contempt for her tears, all I felt was warmth and compassion and I felt so privileged to be let in, to get to share in this intimate, human moment with her.

This changed how I felt about crying in public forever. At that time I was a smoker, trying desperately to quit. Some of you who have been to the Recovery Worship services we have at LaSalle once a month have heard me talk about this a little. And one of the things I had figured out in therapy was that one of the functions of smoking for me figuratively (and sometimes literally) was to suck back in all my real feelings, all my sadness and shame and fear. And I was afraid that if I stopped smoking, I’d just fall apart. I’d be a weepy, blubbering basket case. When I did stop smoking soon after this incident, everything I feared turned out to be true. I stopped smoking and I started crying. I mean really crying. At the drop of a hat. For seemingly no good reason at all. I had at least one “blubbering idiot incident” pretty much every day.

I cried into my therapists answering machine. I cried with my husband. I cried with my friends. I cried in church. I cried in recovery groups. I cried in the ladies room at work with whoever happened to be in there at the moment.
And it was OK. Because every time I started crying and started feeling huge amounts of shame about it I would remember Anne Lamott crying in front of all of us, and I would remember how I felt about her that night, remember how much love I felt for her. And I would tell myself, maybe, just maybe that’s what these people witnessing my tears are feeling for me. At the very least, I understood that it was what God was feeling for me.

One of the things we did together in our Affirmation group this year was read and discuss this book by Rob Bell called The Velvet Elvis. It’s an interesting book, a book that talks about the Christian faith in a fresh way, and it provoked some lively discussions. A favorite quote from this book for many of us was this one: “Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. Everything else is sin.”

The relentless pursuit of who God made YOU to be. Back in Jesus day the religious folks thought they knew what God was looking for. They thought they knew how that was supposed to look for everyone. And this woman who was bleeding for 12 years, she didn’t fit their vision. But Jesus wasn’t having any of that. He called that woman Daughter. He asked her to be honest, to come out of hiding, and then He loved her just as she was and helped her become even more of who she was meant to be.

And as Christ’s body, Jesus representatives here on earth, this is I believe, what the church is called to as well. We are called to be a place where we love each other as we are and help each other become even more of who we are meant to be. A place where we can be honest with each other about our doubts and our questions. Honest about our failures and struggles. A place where we can let our inner blubbering idiot come out. A place where we can also be honest about our passions and dreams. Not downplaying our strengths or gifts to be humble and to keep from standing out.

A place where we can be honest about who we really are. No holding back. No sanitizing ourselves for someone’s protection.

I am coming to believe that God isn’t looking for robots. Or the stuff that comes out of plaster molds. God is looking for people courageous enough to be all of who they are. People like that woman who are willing to risk their lives to get their real lives back.

I think one of the perhaps unwritten reasons that churches have confirmation classes or Affirmation programs or Girl’s Auxiliary groups at this age in kids’ lives—13, 14 years old—is because we’re all afraid of losing them. We’re all afraid that as teenagers and young adults—basically as soon as they are old enough to walk out and not come back, they will. It happens. I think back to all the kids I went to church with, the kids I was in youth group with and by the time we had all graduated from college there were very few of us who still even occasionally darkened the church’s door. But I don’t think that happens because teens and young adults stop believing in God. I think it happens because they stop believing us. Their BS meters go off. They are looking for honesty, they are looking for truth in the people around them, they are looking for a place where they can be honest, where they don’t have to hide their questions or doubts or their struggles with relationships or their confusion or their brokenness or their true joy. They are looking for people, like Jesus who will take them as they are, and love them as they are, who won’t expect them to hide or pretend to be someone else.

That's what these kids need from you today--the commitment they need from you, along with your blessing. They need you, the honest you, the real you. And it’s also the commitment they make to you. To be searingly honest. Even when it’s scary and risky. To speak the truth in love. And to speak it loud and clear. That’s the kind of church they want to be a part of. The kind of church they sense God calling all of us to be. Not a church that builds walls but a church that follows Jesus, that follows Love.

Being honest demands courage. It requires trust. It requires the kind of faith that woman in the crowd had, faith in Jesus willingness to love us where we are, as we are.

God’s love is there—all we need to do is reach out, brush our hands along the fringe of it, and take it in.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Losing my religion

Why do we stick with Christianity? And with the church? I was reading a thing on Beliefnet this morning about celebrities who've changed religions. And the majority of them had changed from some Christian denomination--Baptist, Methodist, Anglican--to something else...Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Scientology.

This is the question the Affirmation Group spent most of our time discussing on Sunday. Why do we stick with the whole Christian thing? And why do we think about chucking the whole thing? What might make you "lose your religion?" I asked everyone to write their reasons for staying with it and reasons for leaving it on sticky notes and we put them up on the wall. On two separate walls. Then another woman and I read the notes out loud for the whole group, one at a time, a reason to stay, a reason to go. The reasons to leave were things like: "Wondering if I'm believing a fairy tale," "God not answering my prayers," "It's boring and pointless to me." "Ministers who abuse children, emotionally, physically, sexually, spiritually." "Missionaries who care only for the soul and not for the whole person." "Christians who picket funerals, bomb clinics and hate those that are different." "Sometimes my parents push it on me." "Some Christians frown upon homosexuality and someone I love is bisexual." "Children are hungry, abused and dying. God and the church doesn't intervene." "It's messy."

The majority of what people listed as their reasons to stay were some variation on the theme of community and "The beauty of people caring for each other." There were a couple who admitted they were staying now because of "my family" or because of "tradition--it's all I know." Other reasons were "The idea of someone greater out there." "I really believe that God has to exist." "God is good, all the time." "Something positive, something there, all the time." "Selflessness." "The Church, when it gives up its power, in situations of race, class and money." "People who make significant sacrifices for their beliefs and to help others." One person wrote something I really liked, and really want to believe is true: "God is bigger than all the crap." "Hope" was a reason to stay someone else said. "Music" was also listed. I certainly resonated with that one--sometimes singing together in church on a Sunday morning makes life feel worth living to me.

One of my favorites was something someone wrote to be funny (maybe) but it also was honest I think, and maybe also more profound a reason than it seems at first glance. They wrote: "I like the bread." And isn't it sometimes as simple as that? I like the bread too. Not only the taste of it and that we stand there in a line and are fed together, but because we are fed bread and fed the idea that our spirits and our bodies matter, this world matters to God, we are reminded that we are all in this together and that God is encountered in the daily stuff of life, in the standing shoulder to shoulder, in the eating and drinking, in the hungers of our lives, in our need and our loneliness and our hope and longing.

And yes, I agree, most of the time, the whole Christian thing seems too messy. We've been doing this for thousands of years and we can't seem to get it right very often. But I keep coming back. For hope. For community. For the music. Because God does, amazingly enough, feel bigger than all the crap. And I come for the bread. Bread broken and shared. It tastes good.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The words of life

I was talking to one of the mentors last week about the experience she's been having with her "mentee" (or "Mento" as I like to call them). Her Mentee has had a hard time with the reading material and the homework and she's struggling to do her final project for Affirmation. And I'm the first to admit, the reading isn't easy. It's not a lot to read, but it's MORE--these kids lives are so busy and overscheduled that I know it's like ONE MORE THING TO DO. And the reading isn't light and breezy stuff either. It wasn't written for 14 year olds, so it's not always easy to grasp without paying a lot of attention and thinking about it. So I understand it could be difficult. And then the Affirmation project: I've asked each of the kids to do a project that expresses where they are in their spiritual journey--what questions are they asking, what kinds of things are they thinking about. The assignment is fairly open-ended and the final product could be just about anything. Some kids are doing videos, a couple are writing songs or making artwork. But this is a hard assignment, I know, because not only does the Affirmand have to figure out what he/she is thinking about in terms of faith, they need to come up with an interesting way of showing that. And then they actually have to produce it. Make something to demonstrate that. And the mentors have to help--they aren't responsible for doing the project but they need to help the Mentee figure out what shape the project might take, and help motivate and support them as they do it.

When this Mentor and I spoke last week I was trying to reassure her that what her Affirmand does or does not do in this program is not ultimately all that important. It's important that the Affirmand shows up. It's important that she, the Mentor, shows up and walks through this with them. I have no illusions that the kids will remember much of what they read or discussed during this program. I think they will remember we met together once a month and shared a meal and that it meant something. I think they will remember their mentor and that there was someone in the church, an adult not in their family, who was willing to take time away from their own families and work and lives to spend time with them. That there was an adult who wasn't obligated to, who actually cared about them.

Though there was much that was wrong and harmful to me about the ideology of the church I grew up going to, there were a few adults in that church who cared about me and let me know it. Adults who invited us teens into their house for pizza parties and guitar parties, who went with us on retreats as chaperones and made us laugh and laughed with us, who tolerated the nicknames we gave them and the personal questions we asked them. I remember my teenage years as being quite often a dark time. I called suicide hotlines a couple times. I almost ran away from home a couple times. I was depressed a lot and felt so horrible about myself that I thought I wouldn't survive at times. Of course, I'm not sure you would have known this if you were just giving me a passing glance. If most people could tell that this was my reality, they didn't let on. But I do remember one time in particular being at a church picnic. I was in a bad place that day, a bleak, sad, I'm nothing, what's the point, kind of place. Except of course, on the surface I was just humming along, playing the part of a good church kid at a nice summer church picnic. But out of the blue, one of the adults who hung out with the youth sometimes, came over to me, and stopped me in my tracks. I was playing with some of the little kids, trying to help keep them out of trouble and amused, and this woman came up to me and said, "I really like you, Lenora." And I said, "What? What was I doing?" And she said, "It wasn't something you were doing. I just wanted you to know that I really like you." And then she walked away. And that was that. Except I've never forgotten it. It happened about 40 years ago and I remember it as if it was yesterday. And I certainly wouldn't say that's why I'm a person who is still in the church today, who still tries in her own stumbling fumbling way to follow Jesus, someone who despite her best efforts at times, still feels like God is there and God cares...but those words at that moment in my life made a huge difference. And even if they aren't the only reason I'm still here plugging away at this whole faith thing, they are a big part of the reason.

So that's what I told that Mentor on the phone last week: The fact that you care about this girl, the fact that you spend time with her, that you enjoy her, that you "like" her, that's all that matters. Not the reading, not the project, not the homework, not the discussion. Just saying with your life and occasionally with actual words, "I really like you," that's all that matters. That's all I really needed in my heart of hearts when I was 14. That's all I suspect these kids really need from any of us today.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just scratches.

It's getting near the end of the school year and the stress level is rising. There are projects due and tests coming, big tests, tests that count for a third of your grade. And there are spring sports going on, practices to attend, games to win, and for these 8th graders in my group, graduation from middle school is not far away, along with the graduation dance (which may be the most stressful event of all). And then there's high school next year. And all the fears about that: will you get in classes with good teachers and with some people who are your friends? Will you be able to get good grades, keep up with homework, find your way around--literally not get lost and end up crying like a blubbering idiot as you wander some back hallway somewhere, and also not get lost as in having no friends, having no idea who you are or what you're doing or where you fit in--in that new place.

I get so caught up in my own stress--will I have a job tomorrow, will I have enough money to put my kids through college, will I be able to not embarrass myself totally in that meeting, am I being a good mother, wife, friend, human being, oh yeah and "Christian," will I get sick and die young, am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, what does it all mean, what does it all matter, why is my house never clean, what am I doing with my life--that sometimes it's hard to see past that, to see that these kids are ready to explode with all the anxiety and it's very real and very scary for them.

And I guess the question for them and me is do we believe God cares and God takes care of us? That is one of the hardest things for me to believe, frankly. It's not that hard for me to believe that there is a Higher Power out there, a God who cares about the course of history, who stands with the poor and oppressed, who wants justice and mercy and kindness to permeate our world. What's hard to believe is that God cares about ME, my little problems, the things that keep me awake at night. And why would God take the time and energy to care for me when there are so many people who need so much more at the moment--who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who are dying of AIDs, alone in a hut in Africa, when there are kids being bombed, and girls being raped and sold into prostitution, when there are homeless people and people with cancer and soldiers on front lines, and presidents who are responsible for millions of lives. I am such small potatoes. My stresses and these kids' stresses, while real to us, are like scratches on someone with a giant open wound on their body. The scratches aren't where you start. The scratches pretty much can heal by themselves.

So I don't know how much God notices me. Or notices these "basically everything is all right" teenagers under my care. When I am at my best, I notice the kids, and I care, and maybe that's the way it works. God puts people like me and like these kids' mentors and parents in their lives to pay attention, to see them and walk with them, and hold their hands when they are afraid, to rub their back when they strike out in softball, to take them dress shopping for the big dance and call the dean at the high school to make sure they are going to be in the right classes, to tell them everything is gong to be all right, somehow, someway, to tell them we're not in charge, but God is, even though it doesn't seem like it all the time. And they will survive this time in their lives, this stress. And no matter what, we say, we'll be there for them. And we make sure that it's true.

Maybe that's the way it works. And maybe that's enough.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Necessity of Yes

In our Affirmation group meeting this Sunday we were discussing a couple of the chapters in The Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell's book that I'm having the Affirmands read as a key part of the program. I like this book because Bell uses fresh language to talk about some of the basics of faith. And he talks a lot about Jesus as a Jew and places him firmly within that tradition, which provides a lot of clarity and new insight into things Jesus said and did.

We were discussing how Jesus chose his disciples, and talking about the fact that we are all loved and chosen too. I was really hit with that fact when I was reading this chapter and preparing to discuss it with the kids. And I said that to them. I said, "God chose me and chose each of you in this room, just as surely as he chose Peter, James and John. You were chosen." I said this with passion, I think, with a little fervor even. It just seemed so important and momentous.

And they all just stared back at me. Blankly. Or perhaps slightly quizzically as if the old lady had finally lost it. A couple of them kind of cocked their heads like a dog will do when you're speaking at length to him but he doesn't really get what you're saying, and it doesn't really matter to him much anyway, unless he missed something...did he miss something, did you say bone or walkies or treat?

I plunged ahead. Talked about how we are chosen but we also then need to decide how we're going to respond to that. Like getting chosen for the team. Just because you're chosen doesn't mean you have to play. You have to decide that.

More relatively blank stares.

These kids have pretty much grown up going to church and their parents bring them even when they don't want to come at times, and though they didn't have to do this Affirmation program, and maybe no parents "forced them," per se, there was probably some sense of expectation that they would. And maybe a little pressure. Or a lot, who knows? So I worry sometimes that they may not feel like they have a choice they can make or that they're really allowed to make an honest choice, so they're just biding their time, until they get out on their own, out from under their parents' rule, out from under this lovely little all-eyes-are-on-me-so-I-have-to-look-good churchy wing. And then I also worry sometimes, with some of them, that they may feel like they have made a choice just because they are here every Sunday, and their parents are here and their friends are here. And they really haven't. They're like a flea, going along for the ride, until they fall off, and then they'll find a new ride. A different ride.

This whole "you need to make a choice" thing feels very Baptist of me. It seems like this is a way in which my Baptist roots are showing and I feel a little embarrassed by myself. It's like I heard "I have decided to follow Jesus," sung a few too many times when I was growing up and I can't shake it, I can't get that song, or that idea out of my head. The idea that you need to make a choice, a real choice to follow or not, and you've got to know it on some deep level. And I certainly don't think it's a matter of saying the "right" words and asking Jesus to come into your heart and be your personal Savior...or that saying those words is some magic formula. I just believe at some point you need to get that you have been called or invited or loved and chosen and some sort of response is required. That you need to say Yes, somehow, someway. And it may not be a one big Yes, it may be a series of many small yes's, but it needs to be said, one way or another. And we say it for ourselves I think. Like we say, "I do," or "I will," when we're getting married. So on those days when none of it makes sense or when everything looks as good as everything else...we can look back and remember there was a choice made one day. A decision. And that decision set you on a path, not always clear, definitely not smooth, but a path nonetheless.

And on those days when faith is far away, you have a marker, you remember there was a day when you joined this team, trusting there was something here for you, hoping against hope that more would be revealed but knowing that one day you heard a Voice that said "You are loved. You are chosen," and you said "Great. Hurray. Ok. Let's play. Yes."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Don't give away the ending

I had an encounter with some of the kids from the Affirmation Group right after the Good Friday service at our church. This service was very dark and quiet. Four readers read the scripture for each of the stations of the cross. The choir sang the song "Calvary," throughout, which is a mournful lament. A soloist gave us "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," -- gave it to us from some deep place of hurt inside of her. At the end everyone there walked around the sanctuary and in silence contemplated the artwork that people from the church had created for each of the 12 stations. Some photography, some oil paintings, mixed media, each of them powerful statements made on a 12x12 inch canvas.

Down in the fellowship hall below the sanctuary after the service I ran into some of the Affirmation kids. There was something about this service--its simple telling of the story--the power of the story itself--something that had definitely gotten their attention, captured their imagination. I knew this because they were talking about it, asking questions about it. Why did the crowd turn on Jesus and want him crucified? Why would they have them release a murderer like Barrabas instead of Jesus? Is it Cavalry or Calvary? One of the kids said, "I kept wondering what the Cavalry had to do with it. Did they even have a Cavalry back then?" Once I straightened out the whole Cavalry vs. Calvary question they asked, "So what was Golgotha? Sounds like the name of a goth band..."

As we were leaving, Hannah, my 14 year old said to me, "It would be better if there wasn't an Easter."

"What do you mean," I asked.

"It would be better if we didn’t know the ending. If we didn’t know he was going to come back to life," she told me. The story would be more powerful for us all, she explained, if we didn't know there was going to be a happy ending. She cited examples from some of her favorite novels. It's better, she told me, if you have to sit with the feeling that it's all over, that all hope is lost. It's more true to life. And it makes the surprise ending even better.

Good Friday is the night darkness wins. Shame wins. All that is broken and falling apart doesn’t get put back together. The wounds are not healed. Death wins. That feeling, that all is lost, that nothing is going to work out, that it's all over and hope is gone, that's a feeling we're all too familiar with. And that's where we sit, without knowing for sure that Easter is coming, much of our lives. We don't get to race past that to the happy ending. Perhaps recognizing that Jesus and the disciples didn't get to do that either, that they thought on Friday night that it was all over, that their dreams had died, their possibilities of a different sort of life had been crucified...perhaps knowing that can help us. We are not alone in our Good Friday lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Maundy, Maundy

The Maundy Thursday service at our church involves a simple meal of soup and bread, some quiet songs and scripture, sharing of the bread and cup and then foot or hand washing. The washing part is kind of the culmination of the service.

It's interesting that in John's gospel, the foot washing is the centerpiece of the story--not the meal or the bread and wine. Making it the fulcrum is John's way, I suppose, of making the point about Jesus love for the disciples. That was the big news, the headline news for John. Jesus loves us and invites us in.

There were two 12 year old boys sitting at our table on Maundy Thursday. Gabe and Nick. Gabe and Nick were not shy about going back for seconds and thirds on the soup that night. They ate the bread leftover at our table from communion too. When it came time for the hand and foot washing part of the service, we were all directed that we could go to either one of the hand washing stations (there were 3 of those) or the foot washing station (just one--assuming that it wouldn't be the most popular destination of the night, I suppose). Gabe and Nick were the first out of their seats, making a beeline for the foot washing. As expected there wasn't much of a line behind them. So I watched as they luxuriated in the bathing of their feet--considering that these were 12 year old boys' feet I imagined they might have real dirt on them, they might even have that stinky athletic sour-milk smell. However, the woman washing feet washed theirs gently, lovingly...thoroughly...channelling Jesus as best any of us could.

I was envious of these boys--their lack of foot shame. There's a lot of foot shame in our society. A lot of it among women, but maybe men have it to some degree too. There's a popular video on youtube all about Katie Couric having ugly feet. And recently, I ran across a blistering article about celebrity Lara Flynn Boyle who walked the red carpet barefoot, and her feet were declared horribly ugly, one toe way longer than the others, "sticking out there like it belonged to a whole other person’s foot." And Boyle was admonished by the blogger that she desperately needed a pedicure. Pedicures are on the rise—up over 20%, rising in popularity even among men.

I can only speak for myself, but sometimes I think the way I feel about my feet, my shame about exposing them in all their calloused, mis-shapened, cracked skin, blistered ugliness, is actually how I feel about the rest of me on some deep level. I'm mis-shapen, cracked, calloused and ugly underneath it all and not sure I want anyone to get close enough to see that.

So footwashing seems to be the perfect way for God to get right to the heart of the matter. It isn’t about getting you cleaned up and presentable, it’s about being included, loved for who you are.

Ok so I didn't go for the footwashing that night--just the hands. But Gabe and Nick, they went for all the gusto. After they finished with their feet, they headed over to one of the hand washing stations. I think if they'd been offered full body scrubs they would have been the first (and possibly the only) ones in line for that too. They would have said with Peter, "Not just my feet Lord, wash my hands and head too."