Even When The Doors Are Locked

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the Hope Sunday. Hope is something that’s been hard to come by for me lately, both on a personal level and as I look at the world. It’s hard to hope when girls are kidnapped and forced into marriage for going to school, cops shoot young black men and diseases seem to run roughshod over entire populations. Merry Christmas!

I just got back from a 2-week vacation to Australia, which was more necessary than you can imagine. I’d gotten to a place in my life where I felt stuck and I’d let my view of my life get very small. I felt like there wasn’t a light at the end of whatever tunnel I was stuck in and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I’m a person who needs to have a view of the bigger picture so I can function. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have a clear path to what’s next, as long as I know it’s there.

While I was in Australia, I attended a service at the Contemporary Church Music Mother Ship. I was in the neighborhood and as someone who’s done church music for a while, I had to go. As expected, the music was awesome and the sermon was not. I knew going in that their theology was on the health/wealth side but I wasn’t prepared for 50 minutes of it. Egads. Who preaches that long? Anyway… The marathon sermon was loosely based on John 20, specifically, Jesus appearing to the disciples while they were locked in a room. As I was trying to ignore the sermon by reading the passage, a phrase in verse 26 jumped out at me: “Though the doors were locked, Jesus came…”

There’s nothing smaller than a locked room, and there’s nothing more restrictive than a perspective of the world that is locked down by fear and darkness. I’ve had to stop watching most cable news because it messes with my ability to see beyond the bad things that are in the world. This is not to say that I ignore the existence of evil, but rather, that I choose not to make it the center of my view of the world. It’s not easy to do that. It’s much easier to hunker down, become as small as possible and try to make myself believe that I’m safe from it all.

Another thing that’s interesting about the John 20 passage is that when this phrase appears, the disciples are in a locked room for the second time. Jesus has already appeared to them once, wished them peace, and ensured them of his presence. Yet, here they are, for the second time, on lock down. In this story, Thomas is the one who gets a bad rap for lack of faith. But what about the other ones? They’ve seen Jesus and yet they still insist on the perceived safety of a locked room.

Hope is about being willing to see the world as big even though it’s often terrifying. It’s also about knowing that even though we may sometimes freak out and retreat to the safety of our locked rooms, Jesus will come and stand with us, which is all that we need.

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Islam and Shalom

I posted a bit of a conversation that I had this weekend with one of our employees as I discussed his observation of Eid. I know the basics of the holiday but I was asking about some of the particulars, like if there are specific foods or traditions. He was telling me that some people fast the day before, some several days, and some a week. There’s not really a particular food that’s eaten, but it’s just a big party. You go to the mosque to pray in the morning and then you just follow the crowd and have a good time. Here’s the basics of what he said: “I fast because I need help. Everybody needs help. God is very big & religion is about prayer & worship. You don’t need to worry about all the other stuff. Just worship God.”

This weekend was a confluence of holidays or events in the 3 Abrahamic faiths: Eid for Islam, Yom Kippur for Judaism, World Communion Sunday for Christians. I read a beautiful piece on the similarities between Eid and Yom Kippur over at the Velveteen Rabbi, and got a lot of this from her. If you don’t read her, I highly recommend that you do.

Eid al-Adha is a celebration that commemorates the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son. Islamic scholars are mixed on whether or not it’s Ishmael or Isaac, as the Qur’an doesn’t actually say. Either way, it’s seen as an example of the gracious submission to God’s will. In fact, the Arabic word for this peaceful submission is islam, which is where the faith got its name. The word connotes peace and wholeness, which is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word shalom. In other words, peace and wholeness are found when we submit to God.

World Communion Sunday is always the first Sunday of October, but this year I almost forgot about it. I loved WCS at Mission Bay because, while we rarely had any dearly held traditions, the one we did have was Hawaiian bread for communion. On this Sunday when we had breads from various cultures we always got several, “Ummm..this is cool and everything, but where’s the Hawaiian bread?” People are funny.

The observance of communion varies between communities and denominations, but the root meaning is the same: Jesus’ model of submission to God is a model for how we ought to live – graciously submitting to God’s will, even though it seems to really suck in the moment. Submitting to God is the only way to peace and wholeness.

God is very big, and religion is about prayer and worship. You don’t need to worry about all the other stuff. Just worship God.

Resistance is Futile

A couple of weeks ago, one of the instructors at my yoga studio was in a very serious car accident. She was able to walk away from the wreck almost completely unharmed, except for some soreness, because she had had a seizure and was unconscious at the time of the crash. Obviously, that’s not a good thing and she’s getting treatment for that, but because she was unconscious, her body put up no resistance to the impact, which helped prevent injury.

I began to think about this in terms of how we respond to various events or “collisions” that life brings us – new relationships, broken relationships, career opportunities, loss, good fortune, opportunities, smackdowns, celebrations. It’s easy to relax and go with the good things but we tend to tense up and try to brace ourselves against the impact of things we don’t necessarily want to happen.

The thing is, they do. They’re still going to happen. Life is still going to throw things at us that we don’t want. And we keep trying to brace ourselves against them, creating emotional, spiritual and psychological tension that ultimately causes injury. We are engaging in the same behaviors over and over but expecting a different result. What if we just let stuff happen? Because, as we’ve said, it’s going to anyway. What if we just allowed ourselves to be held by God through difficult times/feelings/situations and let them come to us and see what happens? Obviously, this would exclude anything that is abusive, dehumanizing, or any other criminal situations. I’m referring to everyday, garden variety life.

Living this way requires a tremendous amount of faith, openness and humility. Asian cultures take a number of lessons from the bamboo tree. The bamboo is not the biggest tree, but it’s one of the strongest. It bends with the changing winds, but is often the sole survivor after a major storm. It has a complex root system that allows for its tremendous flexibility. The fact that it can bend means that it is less likely to break. Additionally, the Japanese character for “smile” or “laugh” includes the symbol for the bamboo because the sound that the bamboo leaves make when the wind blows sounds like laughter. Difficulty both forms and reveals our character. As much as it sucks, avoiding it only prevents us from becoming who God intends us to be.

I am currently spending a lot of time examining the places where I’m holding on to resistance and I’m doing it with the help of a very good therapist. As much as I like to think of myself as someone who easily bends, I still have places where I want to hold onto things that feel safe to me. Doing yoga has been a big help for me mentally and physically because it both strengthens and increases flexibility and forces me to trust the support systems that are in place. I highly recommend.

“If you are not trained in a trust of mystery and some degree of tolerance for ambiguity, frankly you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey. Immature religion creates a high degree of “cognitively rigid” people.” – Richard Rohr

Minimum Wage, Income Inequality and Modern Contempt for the Poor

Yesterday the Fortune 500 list for 2014 was released. Not surprisingly, Walmart topped the list as the company with the most revenue. Also not a shock, when the list is rearranged to reflect the best places to work, Walmart doesn’t even crack the top 100. They refuse to pay their employees a living wage or benefits. Local stores have held food drives for their own employees.

Most of the companies who refuse to pay a living wage claim that the reason they aren’t able to do so is that it would kill jobs and that it’s already too expensive to do business in the US because of all the taxes. However, most of these companies don’t pay any income tax and have billions (BILLIONS) of dollars in off-shore accounts because of tax loopholes. But they’re the job creators. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to call them. They get to hold our economy at ransom while their year-on-year profits increase exponentially. Many of their employees are on some sort of assistance because of their low wages, so these companies might actually see fewer taxes if they paid higher wages because their employees could afford basic needs.

The truth is that corporations don’t create jobs. Consumers create jobs. These companies are keeping their employees poor and preventing them from being consumers and therefore not jobs are created.

In addition to refusing to pay a living wage to their workers, these corporations add insult to injury by assisting in creating a negative image of the people who are working in these low-wage jobs. In addition, the right has created a handy little rhyme to describe the people who ask, “Do you want fries with that” and those who literally live under the Golden Arches: Takers and Makers. Cute, right? The people in low-wage jobs who are also in need of government assistance are the Takers, suckling the teat of big government, living the good life on our dime. We’re working hard at making a living while these parasites sit back, relax and chow down on government cheese. Meanwhile the poor Makers just want to create jobs. That’s all they want to do. But those darned Takers. They won’t stop taking!

This is just recycled Reaganomics. Trickle down does now work. You know why? Makers are greedy. They make 266 times their average worker. Sounds less like trickling and more like hoarding. Money is too strong a pull. Greed is at the heart of this economic inequality. In addition to overall inequality, we have the issue of women making less than men by about 20-30%, depending on where you are. This is a problem of inherent sexism in our systems and structures because the system assumes the presence of a male breadwinner, and for whatever reason, that’s only the case in a little less than half of households. Not only is this an economic issue in the present, it’s an economic issue in the future, as Social Security income is based on your pay during your working years. We’re dooming generations of women to poverty in their later years.

Conservative and Progressive politicians alike perpetuate this issue because wherever the money comes from, they’re all paid well to make sure that someone with a lot of money gets their way. Right now, John Roberts and the Supremes are in somebody’s pocket because they recently overturned the cap on campaign donations that only affected 68 donors. SIXTY-EIGHT. Money is speech and those 68 folks are drowning out the average citizens, making our elections essentially bough and paid for by the richest among us. And NONE of the politicians would ever DREAM of ending corporate welfare subsidies. That’s the biggest injustice here. See the picture below. It will piss you off.

My biggest concern is how this perspective has permeated the church. I see fellow Christians posting about the laziness of poor people on social media sites. They might donate to an international cause, or sponsor a child in Africa, but they blame the poor in our country for their station. Wealthy people want to help the poor in theory, but they don’t actually want to get any poor people on them. They’ll write a check, but they don’t actually want to know any of them. Disdain for the poor was one of the primary reasons God sent God’s own people into captivity. Look it up. We’re stepping into dangerous territory when we choose to look at the poor, for whom God had great compassion, with contempt.

Photo from Democratic Underground.

In March, Georgia voters passed a law that required people applying for food stamps to be tested for drugs. This week the USDA told them, ummm…that’s illegal, you can’t do that. Florida tried to do something similar in 2011 but their law required drug testing for people applying for welfare, not food stamps. The idea was that they’d weed out all those “takers” who might be on drugs away from the welfare system. Wanna know what happened? Apparently, the cost for this new drug testing requirement cost taxpayers more than it saved and did nothing to curb the number of people who applied for welfare. Only 108 of the 4,066 people who were tested came up positive. The state ended up with a net loss of $45,780.

PS – my favorite thing about Florida situation was that shortly after the law passed one of the state representatives who was its biggest champions was arrested for cocaine possession. Perhaps Florida should start drug testing their lawmakers?

Georgia’s law is trying to take food out of people’s mouths in case they’re on drugs. Who is on food stamps that this might affect? It seems that 76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits. So Georgia is fine with taking food out of the mouths of children, the elderly and the disabled if the person applying for the benefit is on drugs. Which, most likely they are not because THEY CAN’T AFFORD THEM.

Both of these situations show a contempt for the poor that I find unbelievable. The pathological need for conservatives to criminalize poverty is horrifying. As Christians we should be appalled at this and be doing something about it.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

Yesterday my friend Jill posted an OpEd in the NY Times about sparrows. The article was published last week and then coincidentally on Sunday, a soloist sang the song His Eye Is On The Sparrow at church on Sunday. I’ve never really given a lot of thought to the sparrow. I just assumed that the lyrics were communicating that God watches seemingly insignificant birds, therefore God watches over me as well. Inspiring enough message, for sure, but when I read more about the reality of the sparrow and its affect on its ecosystem, it went to a whole other level. And also, because I seem to see everything as sermon material.

The author, Peyton Marshall, writes about her mother, who is a member of the North American Bluebird Society (apparently that’s a thing) and is on a personal crusade against the sparrow. Marshall writes that the sparrow is, “a bird that, when it isn’t devouring butterflies and yellow flowers, is pecking out the brains of bluebird mothers, dumping their lifeless bodies in the grass and then throwing their children out to die.” Apparently, the English house sparrow was brought over here in the 19th century to deal with an infestation of the white linden moth in New York.

“City planners hoped that the sparrows would see the linden moth larvae as an all-you-can-eat buffet. And they did. But they also had a taste for other things: Sparrows devoured vital crops, stole the nests of native birds and flourished in urban habitats, slaughtering weaker species. By the 1980s America’s indigenous bluebird population was in steep decline.”

Basically, sparrows are thugs. They represent all of our worst instincts, behavior and desperate need for self-preservation. They are the animal kingdom equivalent of the human id. We all know people like this and we don’t want to be around them. If they’re not in prison they are wrecking havoc on the outside in between stretches. They are ruthless, manipulative, angry, and power-hungry. They are bird Hitlers. Have I made my point?

When I read all this, I had a couple of thoughts, the first of which was that it’s amazing that I get to be in a relationship with a God who values and cares for all kinds of creatures regardless of their baggage. It speaks of God’s great compassion and boundless grace. Then I thought – hey. Why am I in the same category as bird Hitlers? I would hope that God is watching sparrows in a different way that God watches me. More like Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think God watches us all equally and it’s a test of whether or not we are moving through life in tune with God’s grace if we can co-exist with the awful people of the world. I’m not advocating that we lie down and willingly accept abuse. That’s a whole other thing. One can extend grace without becoming entangled. Sparrows are removed from where they are most destructive so that the native species can thrive.

I have to come to terms with the fact that, as much as it would appeal to my human sense of justice, there are not levels to God’s grace and compassion. God’s eye is on the sparrow. And God watches me. And those are the same because I am in need of as much compassion and grace as someone who has lived their entire life at the expense of others. It’s not something I want to admit, but I know it’s true.

I can sing, I can be happy, and I know I’m free. Because I know God watches me.

 

 

50 Days of Resurrection

Saturday night I got my Easter Vigil on after church by watching The Jesus Mysteries on the National Geographic Channel. Honestly, it did a better job of explaining Jesus’ mission than most churches I’ve visited. What was great about it (for me) was that it mixed a scholarly approach with the real purpose of the gospel. That being said, their special effects department should be fired. Cheesy as hell, but the rest of it was good.

I’ve been thinking about how as Christians many of us will engage in special spiritual practices during the season of Lent and then after Easter we go back to “normal.” Some of us might keep up some of the practices, some give them up. But what about life after resurrection? Jesus life and particularly his miracles sent the message to the religious establishment that their definition of “unclean” no longer applied. Jesus restored the people who were ritually unclean to full participation in the spiritual community, breaking down the barrier between the Holy of Holies and God’s people. When Jesus died, the temple curtain ripped from top to bottom, eliminating the most literal barrier between God and God’s people. The ultimate in unclean is a dead body, so when Jesus’ own body returned and went to actually be right next to God, he even eliminated the barrier of death. This is what our lives and our churches should be about. Showing the world that everyone has access to God. Resurrection changes everything. So why not live that way?

I propose that in addition to a Lenten practice, we also engage in an Easter practice, for the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, we engage in practices that show the world that Resurrection matters in every day life. I’m leaving a list here, both adapted from my Lenten practices and some other ideas. I’d love it if anyone else out there has ideas, you’d share them and we can maybe change the world a little in the next 50 days.

Week 1

Sunday: Happy Easter!
Monday: Create a generosity jar
Tuesday:  It’s Earth Day! Do one green thing.
Wednesday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Thursday: Start with gratitude. Grab a pen and write a thank you note to someone. Thank someone who doesn’t usually get thanked: your bus driver, local postal worker, that one guy that always puts a fresh pot of coffee on or empties the dishwasher at the office
Friday: Pray for the families who lost loved ones on the ferry that sunk in Korea
Saturday: Clean out your closet and donate your items to charity

Week 2

Sunday: Pray for the Syrian refugee crisis
Monday: Treat people as equals – assume nothing about their lives, but to show them love and generosity and friendship regardless.
Tuesday: Pick up the phone and reconnect with someone you’ve not spoken to in a while
Wednesday: Connect with a neighbor
Thursday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Friday: Pay for the coffee of the person in line behind you.
Saturday: Make kits to give to homeless people (kits could include: list of local shelters, piece of fruit, clean socks, water bottle, grocery store gift card, etc.)

Week 3

Sunday: Pray for Ukraine
Monday: Make someone smile
Tuesday: Drive the speed limit
Wednesday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Thursday: Forgive someone
Friday: Give flowers to someone for no reason
Saturday: Get out of your comfort zone

Week 4

Sunday: Pray for your least favorite co-worker
Monday: Get passionate about your favorite charity
Tuesday: Unplug for the day
Wednesday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Thursday: Spend time silently listening to God. The amount of time is up to you.
Friday: Find an online petition that resonates with you and sign it
Saturday: Go local

Week 5

Sunday: Pray for our political leaders
Monday:  Donate classroom supplies to a local school
Tuesday: Talk to strangers
Wednesday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Thursday: Bring some extra lunch to work and share with someone
Friday: Take a walk and notice 5 things of beauty that are new to you
Saturday: Practice a form of guerrilla generosity

Week 6

Sunday: Pray for your least favorite family member
Monday: Intentionally wait in the longest line. Notice your reactions.
Tuesday: Practice really listening
Wednesday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Thursday: Leave a random note of encouragement for someone to find
Friday:  Pray for people and situations in today’s news
Saturday: Spend some time volunteering

Week 7

Sunday: Pray for your church community (if you have one)
Monday: Give someone an anonymous gift
Tuesday: Walk around your neighborhood and pray for your neighbors
Wednesday: Donate to the charity of your choice
Thursday: Do someone else’s chore
Friday: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon
Saturday: Worship at a synagogue or mosque

Just So We’re Clear….

Maybe it’s just because I don’t watch Fox News but it seems to me that the same thing that they whine about happening to Christmas has already happened to Easter and I’ve not heard a word about it. Most of the employees in my building asked for today off, citing “religious accommodation” but I’m not entirely sure that’s why they wanted today off.

Over the last few years I’ve seen an increase in store early or complete closures on Easter. It’s a holiday that people travel for. It’s huge in the home decorating market. And candy – duh. Where is all the religious outrage about a religious holiday becoming commercialized? Yes, Spring & Easter holidays have their roots in pagan traditions but SO DOES CHRISTMAS.

My understanding is that for Christians, Easter is as big as or bigger than Christmas. It’s our Super Bowl. Is it that we have such high attendance at our gatherings that we don’t care what happens the rest of the day? SAME WITH CHRISTMAS. Do you see where I’m going with this? I’m unclear as to why such ire is directed at the wishing of “Happy Holidays” and keeping the Christ in Christmas, but nothing is said about the keeping of Christ in Easter. Is it because there’s no alliteration?

When I was a kid, I asked my mom if Easter is about Jesus, then why aren’t there chocolate crosses? If it’s not about the bunnies, then why did they get all the good candy? Her answer was that it would be sacrilegious. Well, here you go, Mom.

 

Mmmm. Most delicious instrument of torture and human suffering EVER!

Just so we’re clear…

We’ve taken the cross of Christ and made it into dessert and everyone is ok with that?