Thursday, December 4, 2008

Having lunch with Jesus

Recently I've been trying this experiment: I've been trying to see Jesus in the homeless people I encounter on the streets. I was thinking about that stuff in Matthew where Jesus talks about feeding and clothing people, caring for people, the scripture that says whenever you do it for the least of these, you do it for me. Every day when I'm downtown for work I run into men and women who look poor and the hungry and sick and homeless and frankly my first instinct is to avoid them like the plague. The are dirty and germ-infested and often muttering to themselves, sometimes angry, potentially crazy and violent. Potentially all con artists just out to make a buck--begging is their 9 to 5 occupation. Like I do advertising.

At any rate, I feel afraid of them, afraid of how needy they are, afraid of getting sucked in, ripped off, pounced on, unsure of how to help, really. Just giving money doesn't seem like any sort of solution. But what is the solution? And truth be told, what I most often feel is "How can I help without really getting involved?"

So lately I've just been trying to tell myself, this guy who stinks and looks like he's been on a several year long drinking binge is Jesus. He's really Jesus in disguise. Listen to him. Care for him.

This all sounds really sweet and pious and uplifting in theory. In practice, not so much.

I was eating lunch at Cosi one day and finished half my sandwich. I wrapped up the other half to take back to the office and put in the fridge there to possibly eat later. I do this quite often, yet I rarely eat the other half of the sandwich, I just leave it there until it gets tossed when they clean out the fridge. Probably green and squishy. But I hate to throw it away. It seems like such a waste of a good sandwich. So on this particular day there was a guy wandering around Cosi asking people for money. As I was packing up to leave he came up to me. Asked for money. I said I had a half a sandwich I could give him. And for some reason I also said, "Would you rather have food or money?" I guess in my head I was doing the math--the half sandwich at Cosi cost about $3. Most people probably give him a dollar. This sandwich was worth more. The man didn't see it that way. I'd rather have the money, he said. And not in a pleasant and/or happy conversational way, I might add. More like a growl. Oh, I said, well a sandwich is what I've got. Do you want it or not? I probably sounded a little testy at this point (versus pleasant and happy) myself. "Well you made it seem like I had a choice. You asked me which I wanted," he complained. "Well, a sandwich is what I've got," I repeated. Oh all right, the guy said, taking my offered sandwich.

He was not thrilled with my gift. I was not in a state of religious (I've just encountered Jesus!) ecstasy either. How was this guy even remotely like Jesus, I wondered? Grumpy and demanding. Picky and questioning ME and my lovely gift... If he was Jesus this is not a side of Jesus I was feeling particularly interested in seeing.

A few days after that I was walking to the Quizno's for lunch and as I passed the Dunkin Donuts next door a woman wrapped in dirty brown clothes and some sort of scarf-like headgear asked me if I could buy her a bagel at the donut place. I kept walking, walked into the Quizno's, but I was thinking, OK she wants food not money...clearly this is a person who really is hungry and wants help. I can even help her more than she's asking for--I could buy her a sandwich here with some protein and everything! So I went back out and told the woman I'd buy her a sandwich at Quizno's. No, she said, she really just wanted a bagel because she didn't have many teeth and a bagel with cream cheese was something she could easily eat. All right, I said. I'll get it for you. We went into the donut place together. She ordered her bagel--cinnamon with strawberry cream cheese. Very sweet, I thought. I've got to get this woman something healthier and more nutritious. I asked the guy behind the counter if they had any was a cold day, I thought she'd appreciate something warm and healthy. No they didn't have any, he told me. Hey, I said to the woman, I could get you some soup from the Quizno's. No thanks, the woman said. I don't really like soup and I would hate for you to waste your money. I just want to make sure you get something healthy and nutritious, I told her. Well, I won't really eat it, she repeated. After a second she said, "But I would take a donut and some coffee."

I didn't buy her the donut and coffee. I left the store confused once again about the whole experience. If I am really to believe that Jesus can be encountered in the least of these, then Jesus has a major sweet tooth.

Which, I was thinking, if I was a homeless person, that's the kind I'd be. I'd rather have a donut than soup any day of the week. The fact that I order anything healthy and nutritious is purely an act of the will, not of desire. And if you're homeless you've pretty much left the orderly world of health and being "together". You're a renegade. You're not expected to look good, smell good or eat well. So maybe her lack of interest in soup or anything resembling protein was to be expected.

When I got back to the office and mentioned this experience to a guy I work with he said, "She's a meth addict. Chrystal Meth makes you crave sugar. That's also why she had no teeth."

Oh. OK. Explains a lot.

I don't know how to care for the least of these. That's what both these encounters have taught me. It's not something simple and easy to do. And I'm nowhere close to sensing God's presence in these screwed up, angry, manipulative, demanding, hostile, dirty and needy people. Except perhaps to the degree that they hold up a mirror to me. The man at the Cosi told me not to ask questions and offer choices if there really wasn't a choice. He showed me the deceptiveness in me. Not intentional, I want to say in my defense... Or at least so ingrained that I don't do it consciously. The woman at the Dunkin Donuts showed me an exaggerated version of myself--the part of me that would always rather have a donut than soup. Would always go for something sweet and vapid and a shot of pleasure for the moment, versus something healthy and nutritious with longer term value.

So maybe Jesus was there after all. But rather than giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling, he was there holding up a way-too-accurate mirror. Lighted. And magnifying.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Thanksgiving After-Glow

When my family gathers for Thanksgiving we have a number of traditions which are probably not so different from those of most of the rest of America. We eat turkey, And dressing. And usually a vegetable made into a rich, delicious, heart-stopping casserole with all the pesky nutritional value pretty much lost somewhere in the middle of vats of cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta cheese and Ritz crackers. We also follow the tried and true American tradition of following up this massive and wonderfully fat-laden meal with...why not...a dessert array that can bring you to your knees. How can you not be grateful for Red Velvet Cake, Applesauce Cake, Caramel Nut Apple Pie, Boston Creme Pie, Chocolate Creme Pie, Pecan Pie, and of course...Pumpkin Pie...all topped with your choice of Cool Whip or vanilla ice cream?

My siblings and cousins and I live thousands of miles away from each other and Thanksgiving is one of the rare times when we're all together in the same city for a few hours. So after the meal is over, and some football has been glanced at (in between cleaning the kitchen and perusing photo albums), we have another important tradition we all enjoy...we go to the movies. Figuring out what movie we can all agree to go to at what time is no small feat--and the fact that we manage to do this without anyone freaking out, stroking out or walking out, is a testament to the years and years of therapy we've all invested in.

When the movie is over we used to just go back to our various hotel rooms to sleep off the annual carb overload. And possibly to have a glass of wine or beer with our spouse in the privacy of our own Holiday Inn Express suite, since drinking is strictly forbidden in my parents' house. Not only is my dad an "alcohol is of the devil" type Southern Baptist minister, so are two of my uncles as well as one of my brother-in-laws. As was my grandfather. But for the last several years a few of us who enjoy the occasional adult beverage have gotten together at one of our hotel rooms to share a bottle of wine and catch up. We call it the "After-Glow" -- with some level of irony, because this is what they used to call the youth group gatherings after worship in churches Gary and I went to when we were growing up. This "After-Glow" has turned into one of most meaningful traditions of the Thanksgiving holiday gathering. Over plastic hotel room cups of cheap pinot noir we talk about our lives. And after a day of the "sanitized for polite company" conversation about our jobs, our finances, our kids, our churches, we finally open the window a little wider and become slightly more honest about what has been happening with us since we were last together. About what we've been thinking and feeling, where we've been growing, where we've been hurting.

Last night was no exception. Gathered in the little sitting room of our suite, with my 13 year old daughter asleep in the other room, my cousin Marcus and his college-age daughter along with my sister Lynn and her husband, my husband Gary and I, talked for several hours. At some point during the conversation Marcus was telling us the story of how he got into the mental health profession--he'd been in seminary and on track to become a Southern Baptist minister like his Dad, when something happened...or in fact, many things happened to him that ended up sending his life off in a different direction. One of the things that was pivotal though was a time when he was going to a church in the inner city and trying to find a way to serve the poor people in the neighborhood surrounding the church. It was discouraging work--there were too many folks with too little resources and too many problems and Marcus felt alone in this church in his concern for them. In the middle of the lobby of this church was a beautiful antique Oriental rug. It was massive and clearly worth a ton of money, and after a while, after several months of hardly being able to make a dent in the desperate situations of the people living all around this church, every time Marcus walked into the front door of the sanctuary and set foot on that carpet it struck him that something was very wrong. There were poor, hungry people scraping by just outside the door. And a very expensive Oriental rug on the floor inside the door.

Marcus is a person who no longer goes to church. He's a person who has seen too many Oriental rugs on the floor. And he can't make sense of a church that has seemed to him to be more about naming what's wrong than doing what's right. I wanted to tell Marcus last night that it's not always like that. That there are some churches made up of people who care deeply about the poor, who also believe in grace and mercy versus lists of rules, churches in which people can be honest and vulnerable with each other relatively often, honest about their lives, about their questions, about their appreciation for pinot noir.

An Oriental rug in the middle of a church lobby. That hurt Marcus. He couldn't make sense of it. Thinking about my little band of Affirmands this morning, one of the things I realize I want to do is prepare them for their own Oriental rug moments. Because they will come. They come for all us. Times when you ask "how could you?" questions of God, when the church seems like a massive mess, when none of it makes any sense whatsoever.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

IMing with God...LOL

Zoe, my 15 year old daughter, is in Ecuador, nearing the end of her 3rd month there. She's in a "study abroad" program and spending a semester (5 months) in Quito, living with a host family, going to high school, having a life. A life separate from ME. The program she's a part of strongly discourages family from visiting during the student's foreign stay because they believe it only makes the homesickness worse--kids tend to leave the program mid stream most often AFTER a visit from family. So we are being compliant about that--we're not going to go down and see Zoe.

They also tell you to only talk on the phone once a week, for the same reason pretty much...the more the kids are in touch with you, the more attached they feel, and the harder it is to be apart. On this front we have NOT been compliant. We like to think they made up these rules before we were all so digitally connected...these days, there are so many ways to stay in touch with each other. Cheaply. And many of them, almost instanly. I do instant message chats with Zoe nearly every day, we email, we follow each others' exploits and "status updates" via Facebook, I read Zoe's blog (and she reads mine) we have video chats through Skype. We even speak cell phone to cell phone via Skype...but, we only talk on the phone about once or twice a week, so on that front, I like to think we are at least being semi-compliant.

I have to say I really LOVE all these communication options. I love me and Zoe's brief afternoon chats through IM while I'm at work and she's doing homework (or more likely IMing with 6 other friends at the same time). I love saying something and getting the reply "LOL" back from her--I've made her laugh--I've made her feel good! And her little "LOL" makes me feel good too. It's also really wonderful to be able to write long emails to her, to share my thoughts and feelings in a more introspective way than I normally do via IM or on the phone. And to get those kinds of emails from her in return is amazing--I often say, it's like she is 15 going on 25. In her emails she is so wise and thoughtful and interesting. I read and re-read them. Ponder them. Talk about them. And then there's the blogs -- primarily Zoe uses her blog to share stories of life there. And she's got some great stories--from learning how to march military style, to getting stung by mutant bees. And she tells her stories so well, with lots of detail and humor.

Each medium is a different way of communicating and each one gives me another piece of the picture and taken together they help me feel as close as I possibly can to my daughter without actually being able to put my arm around her in the flesh.

I've been thinking about this in relationship to my Affirmation Group -- one of the things we talked about on the retreat was the Bible. How it's an important book to read, but also it's a very hard book to get into. For lots of reasons. It's not written in plain English for one thing. It's hard to understand because it was written for a certain time and place and if you don't have the context, stuff doesn't always makes sense. It's contradictory. It's poetic. We've all been told what to think about it and that it's Important and Meaningful and that sort of makes it something you'd just as soon avoid...what if it doesn't seem so important and meaningful to you? Does that make you stupid? There's also the problem of it being a "great book." I have trouble with that. Like whenever a book comes out that becomes very popular and everyone loves, loves, loves it, I kinda don't want to read it, I guess because I don't want to be just like everyone else.

Anyway, the Bible is hard for me to get into and the Affirmation kids (and their mentors) seemed to have the same experience with it. To help us talk about this, I brought the boxed set of Griffin and Sabine books to the retreat. These are beautiful books and they tell their stories primarily through correspondence between the main characters, Griffin and Sabine. The letters are included in the books as actual letters you pull out of actual envelopes and read. And it's cool, it's fun, it's "interactive" and involving. We were talking about how the Bible is this collection of letters and stories and poetry and songs and history...and if the author of Griffin and Sabine had put it together instead of some old guys in dark dusty rooms wearing dark dusty clothes who think being "scholarly " is actually a compliment, we might have a Bible that was more compelling to read. At least at first glance. Once you find your way through the muck, you often can be amazed at what is actually there. How much insight and understanding and wisdom and humor. But it's really not easy to get there.

It also seems like the Bible is much like my various means of communicating with Zoe--some parts of it are like IMs--short, pithy, fun little gems, other parts more like her blog, full of good stories, well told. And others are more like the emails, thoughtful musings on life and the meaning of everything.

I was also thinking how connecting with Zoe makes me feel closer to her--however I connect with her. Which is probably kind of the point of the Bible as well. Not the words themselves as much as the fact that the words are there. Not what they say as much as the fact that they were said--there is an attempt being made to reach across space and time from worlds apart and touch each other, if not in the flesh, then deep in the marrow of our bones. And touching each other in this way helps us know each other in a way we wouldn't if we were in the same city, the same house, trying to deal with getting to school on time and whose turn it is to clean the cats' little box. It helps us miss each other less on some level, but it also makes us miss each other more because we see each other more clearly. And we really, really enjoy what we can see.

I think it would help me to think of the Bible more like this correspondence with Zoe. And imagine that God misses me and is trying to be close to me. And to read the correspondence from God with the same kind of anticipation and tenderness and pleasure that I feel when I read Zoe's blog posts or IMs or emails.

One of the things that scares me about this way of looking at the Bible is that I might end up wanting to be closer to God, and no telling where that might lead. I often find myself signing off my emails to Zoe: "I miss you desperately. " I'm not sure I'm ready for that with God. Not sure I'm ready to let myself feel that much love. And longing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sticky notes smeared with gratitude

I've been thinking about gratitude the last couple days. This coming Sunday that's the theme for the youth group time and I'm giving the "lead." After I talk or do something for 5 or 10 minutes, the kids will be moving around the room, visiting various stations to interact more with the idea of gratitude -- either visually, or by writing or through music, maybe even with food. 

And then of course, I've been thinking about giving thanks because Thanksgiving is next week, our national day of gratitude. It's strange, in a way, how big a deal Thanksgiving is--no one has really figured out how to make it tremendously commercialized and yet people travel great distances to be with family and friends, to sit around a table and share a meal, and whether or not they say thank you out loud, they enact it, the sheer act of showing up around that table is some sort of gesture (however complicated and malformed it may be in many cases) of gratitude. It's like as human beings we have some profound need to be thankful and it's not really built into the fabric of our society anymore except on this one day. On Thanksgiving it's still OK to be thankful. On this one day it's still acceptable. Even cool.

On Saturday morning at the Affirmation retreat we talked about prayer, and gratitude was a big piece of that conversation. We started off the morning reading the Mary Oliver poem The Summer Day, which i just love. In it she says, "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention..." and we talked about how much of our lives we don't really pay attention and that gratitude grows out of looking and smelling and tasting and hearing and noticing. And then we did this exercise in which I asked them all to talk about some very specific things they really enjoy, things that make them happy, bring them pleasure. I guided them through the different senses and we brainstormed and a couple of us wrote down what people said, and at the end we had this huge pile of yellow sticky notes covered with gratitude. I handed out the individual notes randomly, 3 or 4 to a person, and we made a prayer of gratitude in that moment with people reading out, one at a time, the words they held in their hands. 

Meister Eckhart says, "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you' that would suffice." Sometimes it seems in my life that "thank you" is the only prayer I know how to pray that feels simple and true and unencumbered. Everything else--when I pray for something--for help,  when I ask God to step in and fix a situation or even take care of someone--it always feels kind of weird to me. It always raises the question of what does God really do. Does God intervene? And when there's huge horrible things going on in the world shouldn't God be taking care of those issues versus helping me or someone I love with some minor life inconvenience. Or some stress or fear or illness or pain... 

I do know that praying for help is helpful, helpful to me at least, because it reminds me that I'm not totally alone, that there is a God who cares and who wants good things for me and for the whole world. It reminds me that I'm not God, that I can't swoop in and fix situations or control things and that the best thing I can do most of the time is just get out of the way, release my white knuckled grip, and simply let go. It reminds me that I don't know everything and that as Anne Lamott says, most of the time, if I'd actually gotten what I prayed for I would have shortchanged myself. 

And ultimately, it reminds me to be grateful. It helps me remember all that I have, all that is beautiful and good and pleasurable around me, it reminds me of the love that is there too, it reminds me to say thank you and to trust the God who gave me the smell of bread baking, the feeling of the wind on my face, the sound of my daughters' laughter, the feel of my husband's hand on my back, trust that that God is love and that God knows what the heck is going on and that everything ultimately, somehow, someway, is going to be all right.

Friday, November 14, 2008

White dresses, getting crowned and listening to the rumors

I was thinking yesterday about why I'm doing this. Why am I leading the Affirmation group when I have a extraordinarily full time job and plenty of other stuff to do. Or that I could be doing. The easy answer, of course, is that I'm doing it because I care about these kids. And that's true. But it's certainly not the whole truth.

 Two years ago I was a mentor in this program and the entire year I kept seeing the potential for what could be happening in the group and was being missed. Missed partly because the curriculum they were using was pretty bad--uninspiring, not particularly thought provoking or good at starting interesting discussions. Missing also because it didn't have a leader who was completely passionate about it--it was being done by overworked, overextended youth directors--one of whom left to take another job mid-year and was replaced by an interim. Not saying either was at fault--both of them had a lot going on and Affirmation couldn't be top of the list at that time. It was understandable.

But knowing that my oldest daughter, Zoe, was going to be in the program last year, I volunteered to lead. To develop the curriculum and lead the program. I volunteered because I wanted Zoe and the other kids in the group to have an opportunity to really explore their faith, to ask challenging questions, to catch a little sense of what makes this whole Christianity thing so important, and actually life-changing for so many people. 

But in reality I did it for me as well. I did it because I am one of those people for whom following the way of Jesus,  worshipping, encountering the stories of the Bible, praying and trying to figure out how to have a relationship with God, is important and life-changing and even life-giving. Sometimes it all seems absurd and irrelevant and like why even bother but most of the time, on some deep level, it seems like it is  why we're alive on this little blue globe in the middle of the universe in the first place. And it matters deeply. And if we don't bother, we will have totally missed the point.

And I did it because no one really did this for me. Growing up going to a small Southern Baptist Church--and my dad was the pastor, by the way--we had nothing like this program. No kind of confirmation process like the more "liberal" mainline churches had.  We were told to accept Christ as our personal savior, get baptized, go to Sunday School and worship services, read the Bible and pray and evangelize, but we weren't taught to think about faith. Truth be told, we were discouraged from thinking about it too much. Who knows where that might lead, you know?

We did have the Girl's Auxillary. Or GAs for short. A program in which girls at about junior high/early high school age 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, would have a special ceremony in which they recited some Important Bible Verses while wearing a 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 and that I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. The burgeoning feminist in me was totally appalled by the whole "wearing a wedding dress and getting crowned Queen" ceremony. And 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. 

No one offered me an alternative. A time and space to consider what a life of faith might look like. To ask questions. To express doubts. To even be amazed by it all--by, what Bruce Cockburn has called the "rumors of glory." 

So that's why I decided to lead Affirmation I think. For that 14 year old me that needed it and didn't get it. For my daughter Zoe last year and my daughter Hannah this year, and for my other children, those other kids at LaSalle, all of whom I find so full of life, and energy and great questions, and beautiful and deep insights. I do it because we are all on this path, this spiritual journey, and it's better when we don't  feel like we have to go it alone. Or have to go it in an butt-ugly white dress. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

They are movers, they are

I downloaded photos from the weekend to my computer this morning and I've decided a digital camera may not be the way to go with this group. Half the shots are blurred out because of movement. This group does not sit, stand, or even lay still. Or is that lie still? At any rate, they are rarely if ever still. What's that law of physics--an object in motion will remain in motion, something like that? Yeah, that's definitely this group.

However they did get to a place of relative stillness for our sessions on the weekend. During the break times they were wild and loud and frenetically energetic. Playing intense games of Mafia and Spoons and downing whipped cream out of the can and massive amounts of chocolate chip cookies, dipped into cans of frosting. But during our sessions they got very calm--too calm at times. They reminded me of puppies who race around and around and then suddenly, without warning, plop on the floor into a deep sleep.

They didn't exactly sleep through our least most of the time. But they were quiet, and sometimes thoughtful and yes, mostly kind of bleary-eyed. But it was OK. I'm used to these kids--I've been their Sunday School teacher since they were in 5th grade. And by now I can sort of trust that they are with me, listening and taking things in, even if they give no real indication of that in any sort of enthusiastic way.

Of course there's another part of me that always, always feels totally inadequate and like I'm completely boring to them, and like all the little exercises and involving activities I devise to get and keep them engaged and looking deeper are something they barely tolerate. I imagine they are just being polite and trying not to roll their eyes at me while they wait for the "serious" stuff to be over so they can get back to playing Mafia and using their "loud" voices.

Probably both things are true. They are taking things in. And they are bored to tears and barely tolerating me. Hanging out with these guys is definitely teaching me about living with paradox. It makes me think that this must be what God has to deal with all the time. God asks us to "Be still and know that I am God." And I can be still and know that for about three or four seconds if I'm lucky. Before my brain jumps back on the treadmill and takes off. But I want to learn to be still--a part of me does anyway. Even though another part of me can't or won't go there.

Which is perhaps why my life feels like such a blur so often.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What am I doing?

I just returned from a weekend in Galena, Illinois with 18 people, kicking off the Affirmation Program for this year. Affirmation is what we do at our church instead of Confirmation. Since the church I attend is non-denominational, progressive, verging on emerging at times, and basically the kind of place that likes to do things differently, we don't have Confirmation classes. We have Affirmation. And they let me plan it and lead it.

Which is great. Wonderful. Scary. Hard. And it is not my day job. So it's a lot. But it's worth it. Mostly. I think. Most of the time. Though right now I'm exhausted from an intensive weekend away with 8 eighth graders and their adult mentors. And asking myself, what was I thinking? And what am I doing?

This is my second year heading up the program and I thought I'd try to write about it. Thus this blog. Too tired to write more tonight. But more will come. I think. I hope.