The Mad Men Who Distract

The rocky landscape of the Coyote Wall area of Washington state. Photo by Tim Graves.

We were sitting in a rocky, high-meadow in the midst of the dry, parched grasses characteristic of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in late summer. It was a place of natural beauty but it was wilderness. Have no doubt about that, it was a place with few obvious signposts.

As we talked, the middle-aged, African American woman saw me. That is, she “got me.” I was an open book to her, yet she listened intently. Her expressions were earnest and encouraging as she nodded her head when I spoke. Her questions clarified. They were non-threatening and helped me to think and consider my future. I knew she was on my side. I knew that she desired for my welfare and not for my harm, to give me a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

She touched my arm and patted my shoulders as I sputtered out tentative responses. She wiped my tears looking at me as if I was the most important person in her life. Her love poured over me like baptismal waters cleansing me of pain and hurt. I never wanted to leave her presence.

Until…

Don Draper, in his crisp white shirt, tie, dress shoes, and dark suit walked through the meadow. She didn’t look away from me. I looked away from her. The propaganda-creating Mad Men character distracted me from love that cleanses my wounds, washes the dirt from my hands, and removes the crusty conjunctivitis from my eyes. His church of self destructive desires, his sacraments that poison cultures of respect and caring distracted me from the One. The creeds of false needs and empty doctrines distracted me from the love for which humanity desperately yearns.

The Divine One of many ways never gives up on us. The healing waters that encourage us to love ourselves and others never stop flowing, but the mad men of religious and secular institutions seek to build dams to divert and distract. They push and shove us to fight over a few drops of moisture in a dirty glass while the voice of the divine woman in the dry meadow whispers in the breeze. She calls  to us and waits for us to choose to live in her inclusive, expanding love.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29: 11-14 NRSV. Read in context.) Photo by Tim Graves.

At the Risk of Another Male Voice

Rape is about power and control of one person over another. It is a violation. To use the law, personal coercion, or any other means to force a woman to carry a child conceived in rape is a second violation. It is violence compounded upon violence. It is immoral and inconsistent with the values of following Jesus.

***

I have spent my adult life working with, working among, and advocating for children. I risked breaking state regulations to enroll an infant living in a crack house, in an early childhood center of which I was the director. I cared for a sick preschooler that would’ve been better off at home, to save her mother’s job. I lied by omission to a father to prevent a two-year-old from being beaten for wetting herself during nap time. I snapped ferociously at my own children out of fatigue and stress more times than I’d like to admit because I was overworked.

Contemporary life is complicated. The most loving response is often veiled between two or more imperfect and confusing choices. In the end we each do the best that we can. Photo from Fast Signs.

There was no easy, simple solution in any of these situations. Each of these is a case in which, in my human frailty, I tried to respond to others lovingly. I doubt that my children had warm fuzzy feelings when I screamed at them so loudly that I gave myself a sore throat.

Contemporary life is complicated. The most loving response is often veiled between two or more imperfect and confusing choices. In the end we each do the best that we can. This is why I am begrudgingly pro-choice despite my passion for children and children’s rights.

I would like to live in a world in which women only became pregnant when they yearned for a baby. I wish we did everything possible to support mothers and fathers before and after the birth of a child. I’d be happier if men spent less time thinking it was our responsibility to tell women how to lead their lives.

Let’s face it, if patriarchy was dead, if misogyny was a distant ancestral memory, positions of power would be more evenly distributed between women and men. Western culture — and Christianity — still has anti-women elements that are far from gone.

Jesus, on the other hand, pushed those boundaries according to the gospels. He worried less about being touched by an unclean woman than about healing her (Mark 5: 25-34). He opposed men haphazardly divorcing their wives to protect women. In the culture of the time, being thrown out to fend for herself would mean poverty or worse (Matthew 19: 1-12). Jesus challenged the social conventions of his time to expand the rights of women.

Despite the patriarchy that chose what was included in our Bible, the broad strokes of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) includes many examples of powerful women as well as limits on male domination. God created male and female equally and simultaneously in the first creation story (Genesis 1:26-28). Though a marriage arranged by men, Rebekah had the final word on whether she would marry Isaac (Genesis 24). The prophet Deborah led men into battle (Judges 4). Esther herself is the heroine of an entire book of the Bible.

The biblical writers’ implication is clear: God trusts both women and men to respond lovingly to the Divine coaxing.

God of Wisdom and love, The world in which we live is confusing and filled with many sadnesses and evils. Open our ears as you whisper to us. Encourage us to hear and trust your still, small voice so that we might be a part of your unfolding realm. Remind us that you whisper in the ears of every man and every woman pushing us to respond with love.  In the name of the One who breathed you into his very lungs and breathed out your love and respect for both women and men. Amen.

Like Ducks Fighting Over Stale Bread

The former Egyptian slaves wandered in the desert. “Anything would be better,” they thought. Now with their destination far in the future, with their bellies empty, they began to whine. They said to Moses and Aaron,

‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ Exodus 16: 3 NRSV (Read in context.)

The women and men of the Board gathered in the church basement. The coffee was flowing

Photo by Ducklover Bonnie

and someone even brought donuts.  It was gonna be a long one. This was the annual meeting to discuss the budget. Several whined to anyone who would listen,

“Since the economy tanked our investments have been flat at best. What are we gonna do? Several of our big givers have died or moved away. It’s like God has abandoned our church. I guess we’re just going to have to cut our contribution to the homeless shelter.”

The joyous nature he woke with was gone. Taking his hands off the keyboard, he leaned back in his chair. A frown grew on his face. He whined to is wife,

“Well, if you call Sallie Mae and tell them we’ll be a few weeks late on your student loan, if we just accept we have to pay a late fee on the water bill, and if we give less to charity this month, we should make it to another pay day. As he opened the fridge and pulled out a snack, he said, “We have no safety net anymore now that we’ve emptied my pension and sold the second car. Why can’t we ever get ahead?”

***

What if? What if we’re not meant to get ahead? What if we’re only expected to gather enough for today?

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. Exodus 16: 4a NRSV (Read in context.)

“Go out and gather enough for that day” not enough for tomorrow, for next week, for retirement, or for the feared rainy day. A core message of the manna section of Exodus is that of trust, of taking just enough. The ancient author implies that trusting God, trusting the earth, and perhaps even trusting our journeys through the wilderness requires taking just enough.

Perhaps the problem with the economy and even the church is that we’ve forgotten this basic message. When we take more than enough for today, we’re like ducks fighting over the stale bread thrown to us in the park. Churches hold investments “just in case” while local charities struggle to have enough resources to feed the poor. Individuals plan for a future we can’t predict. We drive fancier cars or live in bigger homes than we need.

Communal One of Relationships, Heal our wounds that we might trust that enough for today is enough. Remind us that we are created in your image as social, interrelated people who need one another. Knowing that what we do impacts everyone, grace us with the wisdom and love to take just enough for today and share the rest. Amen.

Chicken: Free Speech or Justice?

I didn’t mean to step into the Chick-fil-A brouhaha but I did. The following is a comment I posted at Rebecca Hamilton’s blog, in response to her post, It’s Eat a Chicken Sandwich for Freedom of Speech Day ! « Public Catholic.

Image from the blog of New Columbia Heights.

***

I’ve been thinking about this post off and on over the last several days. Perhaps, it’s because I keep getting notices that someone else has commented. More likely it’s because of my discomfort with my last comment. I think it was incomplete.

This is indeed a free speech issue when mayors and others in elected or bureaucratic positions seek to keep a legitimate business from operating in their city or other jurisdiction. People also need to learn to talk with one another civilly. We do too much screaming and not enough listening.

The owner of any business has the right to express his own religious and political views. Whether he was asked or not is irrelevant; he chose to state them. At this point those with differing perspectives have as much right to express their views as Dan Cathy. He may spend his money how he chooses but as an outspoken business leader he can expect some to choose not to support his business. They may also exercise their constitutional rights to protest in a variety of ways.

This becomes a justice issue when he expresses opinions and spends $5 million on oppression of a minority. Some of that money has been spent on a program to “fix” people who are GLBTQ. That is, he denies that their sexuality is God-given. It is a gift just as my heterosexuality is a gift from God.

Mr. Cathy goes further, though, and seeks to deny the rights of those with whom he diminishes. He tells my child, my friends, and my human kin that because of their sexuality — which hurts no one — that they are not worthy of the right of visitation as family when their beloved is hospitalized. He tells them that they must pay higher taxes because they are not legally married and so cannot file jointly. He tells them that their loving relationship is less valuable than someone who is married to someone of another gender. He implies that they are less than the beloved children of God.

I am saddened by the display of Christians lining up to eat chicken in the name of free speech that hurts so many of our human kindred. Though, I fully support their right to do so it is hard for me to comprehend why this issue which gets marginal treatment (even if interpreted as condemnation) in the Bible, rallies so many to eat chicken. The biblical witness is chock-full of the importance of hospitality and welcome of the other. Jesus is persistent in his call for us to reach out to the poor, the marginalized, and the despised of society.

The body of Christ is not about hatred. It is about love. My friends and family who are GLBTQ do not feel loved by the Christians who went out to eat chicken.

Letting Go: Yep, We Need to Go That Far

Letting Go: Yep, We Need to Go That Far
Drawing by Tim Graves

Mindi Welton-Mitchell writes that the church needs to “let go of the building” in Letting Go. She builds her case well but stops short when she states, “I’m not suggesting everyone go out and sell their buildings.”

I disagree. We need to go that far.

Until we give up our property, the church will continue to be viewed as — and in fact be —  hypocritical. When Jesus called his first disciples, “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:20 NRSV Read in context.) They left the security of their fishing business.

They left security and control behind to follow a scruffy messiah who didn’t seem to know how royalty should act. Jesus was the President without secret service protection or Air Force One. He took on tasks considered beneath royalty. Jesus washed the filthy feet of guests, went to the outcast, ate with them, touched the untouchable, and in the process gave hope to the oppressed.

He did not build a synagogue and call people to him. He walked among the people.

The cost of discipleship to Jesus is ceding control to God. Following Jesus requires disruption of our lives of consumerism to seek justice in a world of unjust actions and systems that oppress. Leaving our safety nets behind, we hear the Spirit along a path that branches away from material security.

Followers walk among the people, learning from and with them. Though we sometimes fail, we strive to be God’s loving, empathetic presence in a world of indifference. The church, however, is too often about security. The institution of the church itself possesses capitalism’s symbols of success: property and financial investments.

Property has become Christians’ idol that keeps us from God.  We feed our property-god with new roofs while people sleep under bridges. We slash Educational ministries, missions to those in need, and even Evangelism budgets when our golden calf demands new paint, carpet, or stained glass. With every expenditure we fear opening our doors to those in need will spoil the splendor we’ve created.

The time has come for the church to leave our nets and business behind and risk it all for the One we claim to follow.

Extravagant Community

I cringe when I hear Christians respond to the “spiritual but not religious” by extolling the importance of community. Yes, we all need community for spirituality. We are social creatures. 
But, while there is truth in this response it is based upon an unproven assumption. That is, that the “spiritual but not religious” lead the lives of hermits never talking with friends about their faith journeys. The community-defensealso assumes that community must take an organized form. It does not.

They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:35 NRSV Photo by Tim Graves

More troublesome about the community-defense, however, is that it allows followers of Jesus to avoid our own failings. Too often churches are not places of community. Community is about caring for one another in deep ways. It is about assuring that everyone has their basic needs met. The reality is we spend more time worshiping consumerism and capitalism than we do sharing with our neighbor–even those within our churches. 

Too many churches have within their midst those struggling in very real ways while others live in relative laps of luxury. Aside from this being contrary to the teachings of our purported savior, the attitude of the relatively wealthy community members disturbs me. In my experience, when help is provided it comes with strings and pettiness. We reflect the resentment of a culture that elevates rugged individualism to idolatry.

Within this context of blaming the victim, we operate not out of extravagant love but out of begrudging duty. We do not believe that Jesus fed the whole crowd with a few loaves and fish. We fear that if we give too much to someone, even someone within our own community, there will not be enough for us. 

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12: 29-31 NRSV (Read in context.)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.  Acts 4: 32-35 NRSV (Read in context.)


Trustworthy God of Abundance,

You give extravagant,
   undeserved grace.

We give out of love,
   limited by our human fears and worries.

Help us to trust in your abundance,
   help us to love you as you love us.

Help us to give lavishly to others,
   within the koinonia,
   and to the whole human family.

Amen  



Heroic Wife Kills Dust Bunny

Mosier, Oregon—Despite differences of opinion with her husband about killing bugs, an Oregon chaplain hunted down a long-legged creature. What she captured and killed turned out to be something very different. The chaplain’s husband witnessed his wife capture a dust bunny in a tissue. 

Said the husband, “I was nagging her to leave the poor bug alone as she reached for a tissue. She defended herself by telling me it wasn’t an ant, that ‘it’s one of those multi-leg things that freak us out.’ Of course I had the last laugh.” 

The wife captured the invading creature only to discover it was a dust bunny. Just lint. She said of the experience, “I wasn’t impressed by Tim’s sarcastic remark about feeling safer. Maybe he should sweep the bedroom more often!”

***

Not everything is what it first seems to be. Not every perceived threat is real. Like interracial marriage before it, marriage equality for LGBTQ peoples is one of those dust bunnies. It will not harm my marriage of nearly thirty-three years. It will not result in the crumbling of western culture or spur God’s fiery vengeance on America.

We are presented with choices every day of our lives. Will we respond to others out of love or will respond out of fear and hatred? I choose love. God will undoubtedly hold me accountable for many failures and sins. I am very human. I am convinced, however, that acting out of love will not be one of those sins.

Theologies Evolve as We Seek the Divine

A tweet by @MattRWilkins crossed my Twitter stream this morning. Wrote Wilkins, “Many are redefining the theology of the church today & in so doing they are redefining God. Mark it down, God is NOT up for redefinition!” Wilkins’ implications in this tweet are problematic in many ways. I will address five in this post. 

1) He implies that theology is somehow “of God.” Quite the contrary: theologies are “of people.” Theologies are human attempts at understanding the inexplicable. Much of the biblical witness is a collection of theologies by the original authors. They often vary because God is inexplicable. They conflict because each of the ancient’s experiences of the Divine were filtered through personal experiences, culture, time and place in history, and scientific understanding of how the world works. The same can be said of contemporary theologies. 

2) He implies that the church has a unanimity of opinion. The historical record contradicts the idea that “the church” has ever been of one mind theologically. The times when the Roman church had multiple popes, the Protestant reformation, and the Catholic counter-reformation are but a few examples of times when theologies were far from singular. The only way to argue that the church has ever had one theology is to exclude vast numbers of followers of Jesus from the church. 

All who profess Jesus and seek to follow his teachings, however imperfectly, are part of the church, of the body of Christ. We all have spiritual gifts to contribute to the whole.

3) He implies that the theologies of the church have never changed. As humanity has sought to understanding the spiritual realm ideas have evolved. This is true within Christianity. In seeking to understand the nature of God, for example, followers of Jesus developed trinitarian theology over centuries.

The trinity is a post-biblical interpretation of the scriptures which expands upon themes within the Bible. I tend to use trinitarian language because it helps me describe my experiences of God. This language is not the literal nature of God. It is a human construct designed to understand the Divine. Other followers of Jesus, part of the church, do not subscribe to trinitarian theologies. 

4) He implies that God is silent in our age. To suggest that our understanding of the nature of God was complete at some point in the past, suggests humans can define God. He intimates that God no longer speaks. To do so is to deny the entire Pentecostal movement, the everyday experiences of billions, and to restrict the Divine. A silent God is a dead God.

5) Most alarming is that he implies that he owns God. In dismissing all but his own theology, and those who agree with him, the tweeter himself defines God. To maintain this arrogance he must dismiss the experiences of those who find the Divine in other ways. He lays a stumbling block before others and acts as the gatekeeper to Jesus’ love.

Reading this tweet, I imagined a man standing with his arms crossed stubbornly in front of Jesus. Those willing to define God in the way in which he defines God, are welcomed and hugged by Jesus. Those who do not, are forcibly removed.

I experience God differently. The One I experience, stands before us all with open arms. Encouraging us forward, smiling and exuding joy in our mere presence. Like a toddler attempting a first step, if we fall God picks us up, brushes off our knees, sheds a tear with us, wipes our eyes, and wraps Divine arms around us. If we are able to take those first toddler steps, God’s face lights up and divine arms of joy wrap around us. Whether we fall or toddle forward, the God I know, whispers in our ear, You are my Beloved.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39 NRSV (Read this passage in context.)