Saturday, June 27, 2009

Healing and the Image of God: 3 things to do

I was blessed early in the week with a phone call from one of my mentoring pastors, and it turns out that she needs someone for pulpit supply this Sunday, so I'm preaching on Mark 5:21-43, the healings of the woman who is hemorrhaging and of Jairus' daughter.

Three pieces inspired me in sermon preparation this week. You may not hear my sermon, but perhaps these pieces will also inspire you to three actions.

A) This fact: an estimated 18,000 people a year die because they don't have health insurance, so they can't afford and don't get treatment for preventable or treatable illnesses. "Uninsured adults have a higher risk of dying before age 65 than do insured adults, resulting in roughly 18,000 excess deaths annually." See the pdf brief from the Institute of Medicine report, Insuring America's Health.

1) Write, call, email your representative in Congress and in the U.S. Senate and say, now is the time for universal health care coverage.

B) Inspired by an excerpt from a poem "The Daughter of Jairus," from Soul Sisters: Women in Scripture Speak to Women Today, by Edwina Gateley.

The miracle was surely
as much in your father
as in Jesus
who was moved and struck
by such blind and naked faith.
It is the kind of faith
which leaves respectability and convention
curled up
like a small irrelevant ball
in the face of mystery.
It is a faith
for which we deeply hunger,
yet shun.
For it requires a fall
into the grace of God within us—
and we are afraid to fall.
Nor do we, unlike Jairus,
weep and cry in public,
allowing ourselves to acknowledge
how broken up we are—
and daring to reach for deep healing. …

Ah, we need you, Jairus!
We need the passion that burned in you
for the health and life of your little one.
We need the desperate determination
which sent you running and humbled
to the feet of Jesus
begging for new life!
We need the kind of unselfish love
that will topple us from high places
of righteousness and political strategies,
of retaliation and sanctions
and lead us, instead,
to look with compassion
into the eyes of children in pain
who know nothing of sanctions—
but only of the hurt
and the ache in their bellies.
It is the children who must drive us,
like you, Jairus,
into public places,
weeping for mercy and
stretching out for healing.
Miracles will come about only
when we fall from arrogance and power
to a place of deep conversion.
It is our tears, then,
which will bring about
the healing of our world.
And maybe then,
when we come to honor and love
all the little ones,
putting them first and before all else,
our lives will shine, splendid and pure,
in the light of God—
as brilliant as that
which must have shone
in your father's eyes,
daughter of Jairus,
when you were raised from death.

2) Have faith and fall into God's grace.

C) And this story from Rabbi Rami Shapiro found in his book, The Sacred Art Of Lovingkindness: Rabbi Shapiro was speaking at a benefit for 2004 tsunami victims, and he said,
"There is one thing rabbis are trained to do, and that is to teach Torah. So let's study the Bible together for a few minutes. The book of Genesis tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Yet when God actually creates us, Torah refers to us only as the image of God and not the likeness. Let's take a look at what these terms mean, and why the difference in wording matters.

"What does it mean to be the image of God? Being the image of God means that we are God manifest. Just as a wave is the ocean extended in time and space, so each one of us is God extended in time and space.

"What does it mean to be the likeness of God? Being the likeness of God means that we have the potential to act in a godly manner. It means that we can, regardless of our ideology, theology, and politics, engage each moment and each other with loving kindness.

"According to Genesis, God intends for us to be godly, to honor the image by living out the likeness. This is not a metaphor. The Hebrew Name of God, the four-letter Name Y-H-V-H, yod-hey-vav-hey, when written vertically takes on the shape of a human being. Each one of us is the Name of God incarnate."

If you can, do this with a friend and in a group, otherwise go to a full length mirror.

"The letter yod is like a seven. Starting on the right side of your neighbor's forehead, run your finger across the forehead, then down the nose, over the lips to the chin. That is the letter yod, the first letter of God's Holy Name. Draw it, feel it on the body.

The second letter of God's name is hey. This letter is the shape of the shoulders and arms. Start with both hands on your partner's sternum and then draw a line outward across the shoulders and down both arms, leaving a slight space between the shoulder and elbow of the right arm.

The third letter is vav. It runs down your torso or spinal column. Use your finger to draw a line from just below the sternum to the pelvis. Don't linger at the pelvis.

The fourth and final letter of God's Name is another hey. Draw a line across your neighbor's hips and down both legs to the feet.

Now step back from your neighbor and visualize the Name of God as their body. Don't imagine it is written on the body, or that it is glowing through from inside the body. The body itself is the Name of God. Now close your eyes and sense the same thing regarding your body. You are the Name of God. You are the image of God. Now open your eyes and tap as many people as you can easily reach on the forehead, saying, 'Image of God!'"
The rest of the story and the book is well worth reading too.

3) I invite you to take this practice with you and visualize the Name of God on each person you meet, starting with yourself in the morning as you look into the mirror. If we truly see God in the other, won't we be bringing healing and wholeness to them and to ourselves and to the world? Jesus surely understood this as he did his healing work. You can think of this as an active prayer, a way to pray without ceasing with each person that you meet.

In the Name of God, yod-hey-vav-hey, amen.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Moral Documents in Everyday Life

It is an odd confluence of events. In my current day job (as a chief financial officer of a nonprofit social services agency) we just finished reviewing our budget for the next fiscal year. Given the issues with the economy and state funding and on-going legislative processes, it has large portions of crystal ball gazing associated with it. One thing I try to emphasize is that the budget is not an independent document but one that is associated with agency and departmental plans and goals, so that, despite having to make educated guesses about what funding sources are going to do, the document has some basis in and bearing on reality. We use a story-telling technique (coming from a discernment exercise by Charles Olsen that I learned in seminary: "once upon a time; and then; but before that") as a way of presenting the story behind the budget to the board.

In the past several years religious leaders have made the case when the President was presenting his budget to Congress, that
the budget is a moral document. I think that's true, yet from my point of view, it is somewhat optimistic. I'd like for our agency budget to be at least a reality based document that does reflect our values and goals, but I often feel that it is good for about 5 minutes after it's completed until it has lost touch with reality, or perhaps before people just begin to ignore the plans that we've spent weeks making. If there is no linkage to every day plans and values, then the budget just deserves to be confetti next week, because no one really will pay attention to it. If moral principles are our guides in everyday actions, then we've been either immoral or missing the mark in our translation of these documents to an every day life.

This week in Sojourners Jim Wallis makes the comment that
a calendar is a moral document. While Wallis was making this point relative to his own travel and work schedule as a father, I happened to have been reading The NaNny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (also a movie) about parents who really have no time at all for their children or each other, and who hire a nanny to take care of the children. It's a sad commentary when parents' calendars have no time for the flow time of children. For that matter, it's sad when adults have no flow time of their own.

But, it made me wonder what other things might be considered "moral documents" in our everyday lives. My daughter is on Facebook now and thinks I should join. I suspect that the Facebook wall might definitely be considered a moral document, and I wonder about what that says about our moral compass.

Would our email inbox or sent mail folder be considered a moral document? Even disregarding the spam about drugs and sex, the emails that I have signed up for make a statement about what is important to me. Certainly the twenty emails about the appropriate dress for the eighth grade recognition and celebration/party afterwards were moral documents, but if parents really thought that some of the dresses and shoes that I saw the other night were appropriate for a 13-14 year old girl (call me a prude), then we have need for more self-reflection about our moral standards and messages to our children. And that, of course, is Jim Wallis' point. Our lives, in our spending of time and money, in what we say and convey to our children in private and public media, define our morality. But do we, or how do we, ever stop to examine what those documents say about us and what we value? How do we learn and how do we teach discernment?

I confess I never "took" to ethics classes in seminary, with the debates on the virtues and philosophical constructs, although I did like the professional ethics seminar where we discussed real life and the gray of some situations and the slippery slope of others. That is the difficulty with moral documents, knowing when and where to draw the line, because much of life is/has become less black and white. Where do we cross over that line in our budget, in our personal spending, in our calendar, in our email, in our blog?

I was reminded of the following poem from the wonderful anthology Good Poems for Hard Times edited by Garrison Keillor:

"For a Five-Year-Old" by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

So how do we end up at only kindness to snails? When and how do we review and correct our actions reflected in our moral documents, so that our kindnesses and our relationships really reflect the values that we want to convey to others, especially to our children? In financial terms, you have an audit. That shares the same root as audio--to listen. Do we make time to listen, to examine, to understand?

As summer comes, may we each have time for flow, for listening to ourselves and to others--especially our children, and may we look carefully at our moral documents and make sure they reflect the values we want to have and share.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Resonating with other

Preaching this morning using the text on the anointing of David by Samuel from 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, I said, in part:
We are all David.

How many of you have ever said or done anything you've regretted?
How many of you have ever done anything you weren't very proud that you'd done?
How many of you have ever had someone do something amazing for you completely unexpectedly?
How many of you are loved by God?

We are all David. …

Up until the point where the oil gets poured on your head, where you are chosen, singled out, marked as other, you really don't have to do much. Once you are chosen, once you are singled out as different, then, then you start having to figure out what this means for you. Now people are paying attention, now you have to do something with what God has given you. …

So the second lesson is that, like David, we are all being called out to be other. …

What is your reason or excuse to come out and share with someone outside of these walls what this faith community means to you, or what our prayer time means to you, or what God is doing in your life or how you hear a story from the Bible reflected in your own everyday life? When you do the work of social justice that so many of you are called to do, do you tell people about the faith that motivates you to do so, and if not, why not? It's one thing to be called to be different, to be other; it's quite another to figure out how you really need to live that out and speak out about our difference. When we are called out, how do we live faithfully as other, as different? …

God is calling us out. We are all called to be ourselves as people of faith, both in and not in the world, to be contemplative and activists, to be do-ers and be-ings. We need to come out to live on the thresholds, in the boundaries.

But how?

For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. The One who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident—even if one of us is not in the moment, like last week when I asked for your prayers, we as a community are a container for faith—we are always confident, even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.

Have faith to be other. Like God called David, God is yet calling us. Come running in from the fields, and see what God has in store for you. It is through that faith in showing up and coming out that we will find God, and be about doing God's work, here, on the boundaries, on the thresholds. The love of God will meet us there.

What struck me then in the time of community prayers is how much people variously resonated with otherness. One person asked for prayers for faith to be other while she begins to do ground breaking research—no one has done preliminary research in what she is trying to do. One person asked for prayers as he travels with a group of formerly homeless veterans who've formed a rock band—talk about knowing about otherness, he said. I am reminded that we all have fears and feelings of being other and thus outcast, and I was trying to reframe otherness as a gift that we each bring to the world in/as our faith journey.

The chorus of a song I've just been listening to by the Talley Trio, Orphans of God, has this key phrase: "There are no strangers, there are no outcasts, there are no orphans of God." What does it take for us to know that? And to know that being other, not being the same, is why God created us in our glorious diversity, and that being different is not to be feared?

In my meeting with the committee on ministerial preparation, which, give thanks and praise, has affirmed me in my call to ministry and so I move onto the next step, I said in response to the question, "What is my learning edge?" that I was reminded by my recent CPE experience of the blessing it is when we learn ways to get people to see us outside of the boxes that they put us in and when we remember to see other people outside of the boxes that we have put them in, and that is what we most need to do. If it were a bumper sticker, would it be "Question assumptions," rather than the 1970's "question authority?"

Rejoice today in your otherness, for it brings you close to the holy mystery and Otherness that is God. That perhaps is what loving the neighbor as ourselves really does. Then, I was reminded of this poem about neighbors and prayer and finding ourselves going places we don't expect to go.

(from Claiming the Spirit Within, edited by Marilyn Sewell):
Answered Prayers by Kathleen Norris
I came to your door
with soup and bread.
I didn't know you
but you were a neighbor
in pain: and a little soup and bread,
I reasoned, never hurt anyone.

I shouldn't reason.
I appeared the day
your divorce was final:
a woman, flushed with cooking
and talk, and you watched,
coiled like a spring.

You seemed so brave and lonely
I wanted to comfort you like a child
I couldn't, of course.
You wanted to ask me too far in.

It was then I knew
it had to be like prayer.
We can't ask
for what we know we want:
we have to ask to be led
someplace we never dreamed of going,
a place we don't want to be.

We'll find ourselves there
one morning,
opened like leaves,
and it will be all right.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lawn mowing, or not, as theological exercise

Yesterday I went early to the garden center to get potting soil, edging for the new flower beds I'm creating and a replacement for the clematis that was a victim to some overzealous weed whacking early in the season. I confess that I hadn't mown my lawn yet this week. I will also say that I don't use weed killer on my lawn and I have really splendid crop of dandelions (not the usual dandelion greens kind, but a more tenacious, spreading/take over the lawn kind) that looked quite sprightly and yellow as I left the house.

I ran into one of my neighbors buying cosmos and she looked at my cart and asked, "so, did you mow your lawn?" The tone of voice implied that I was single-handedly responsible for the diminution in property values on our block otherwise caused by the recession in other parts of the country.

There are two theological questions that arise in response to this. One is a mental review of the conversation between Jesus and the young man about the great commandments: "love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself." What I want to know is exactly how I am supposed to love someone who asks me that question in that tone of voice? The great commandment is, well, great, but the tactical implementation leaves me baffled sometimes. I smiled politely and said that I would be mowing the lawn when I got home. This neighbor has two four feet by eight feet patches of lawn on either side of her front walk, which I suspect that she trims with nail clippers. I have a corner lot, and a lot of yard that I would like to turn into something besides lawn, but that hasn't happened yet.

The second theological question, or perhaps it's a midrash question, is when did weeds happen in the scheme of creation? Did weeds happen when Adam and Eve got locked out of the Garden of Eden? Or did they happen as an American experiment in landscape democracy went wrong when lawns took over our gardens? See page four-five of the history of landscape design. I imagine that before that dandelion greens were harbingers of spring, and a tonic for the winter blues.

This Thursday I'm meeting with the committee on ministerial preparation as a part of the ordination process. I'm wondering whether my lawn mowing theological questions are perhaps part of God's preparing me for this meeting. These people are gatekeepers for my call to ministry, at least in this denomination. I will confess to some angst. While I have faith in God, I have experience and knowledge of human evil, stupidity, and/or fear of change. It's a similar tactical implementation question. Yes, we walk by faith, not by sight; yes, if God is for us, who can be against us; yes, and how do I do that as I walk into that room?

Your prayers are always welcome, because I also have knowledge and experience of human kindness, compassion and support.

This coming Sunday I'm preaching using the text on the anointing of David by Samuel from 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and incorporating the lectionary texts from Mark 4:26-34 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-17 on faith, with the sermon title, Having Faith to Be Other. When in doubt, preach about it.
I'll keep you posted.

Does anyone have an appropriate poem about dandelions for this spot?
Maybe I should just plant a pot of mustard seeds...