The Work

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Luke 6:26-36

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I know probably every parent thinks this at some point or another, but really, sometimes, my kids are the wisest people I know. And Tuesday night, we were headed home after swimming lessons, and it’s only a five-minute-drive, but I couldn’t be obsessively checking my phone while I was behind the wheel so I insisted on listening to election updates on NPR.

My kids usually whine about talk radio, but they’ve been pretty tuned in this whole campaign season, so they kept quiet. And on that quick ride that night, they heard some uncertainty in the commentator’s voice. They heard some hint that Hillary wasn’t as far ahead as the experts had expected her to be at that point in the counting. And from the backseat my boys asked, “Is Trump winning?” And I said, “I don’t know… it sounds like he’s going to have a chance.” And they asked, “But why?”

And we talked again about different visions for the country, and how some people would choose his vision. And then I told them that some people, even if they didn’t share Trump’s vision or his values, they just had always been on the team that he was on, and so they’d vote for that team, whoever that team’s player was, and also, I told them this piece this piece that we hadn’t talked about before, this harder part – I told them that some people would vote for him just so they wouldn’t be voting for Hillary. And again they asked why, and I told them that some people don’t agree with her vision, and then, beyond that, there are people who just think that there are some jobs that a woman can’t do.

My boys were so confused by that.

And Oscar said, “Like what jobs?”

And instead of going through a whole long list, I just said, “Well, like president.”

And he said, “Don’t those people have women who are friends?”

And I said, “Well probably, I mean, sure, yes, I’m sure those people have women who are friends.” I said, “But that’s different.” He said, “How?” I said, “They might have women who are friends but they don’t think those women – or any women – should have jobs where they have power, or especially, where they have power over men.”

And Oscar didn’t miss a beat and he asked me, “Isn’t being a friend a kind of power?”

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That’s been helpful for me this past week.

It’s been helpful for me as I read about deepening divisions in our country. It’s been helpful for me as I consider how to move forward, and what sort of role I can play, what sort of role this church can play, in this community as it responds to this change. And it’s been helpful for me as I hear and read about what other kids are saying.

Other school-age children – white kids – are saying to kids of color, “pack your bags” or they’re saying “your time is up” or they’re saying “you’re gonna have to go home” and they don’t mean down the street to your house, or to the neighboring town where you were born; they mean to some-unidentified-foreign-place-where-I-assume-you’re-from-because-your-skin-isn’t-the-same-tone-as-mine. Other white kids are coming home and asking their parents, “The president can’t really send my friends away, can he?,” while parents of color are picking up their kids from school early, in droves, to get them out of places where they’re subjected to that kind of cruelty.

My own kids fell asleep before the results were certain, and when they woke up, still groggy, they said, “Who won?” and I said, “Trump won,” and Oscar rubbed his sleepy eyes and the first thing he asked was, “Is he going to build that wall?” That’s what kids know.

Confederate flags and Nazi flags are being flown on busy sidewalks, on paths kids take to get to school. Students on college campuses and women waiting at bus stops are reporting verbal abuse and physical abuse with language that seems tied to the election results and online abuse between strangers is ordinary and horrifying now. Portlanders have shut down interstates with their protests and those have turned violent, too. Our oldest elders, who remember camps in this country that denied first their American-ness and then their humanity, are fearful of a return to those days.

I do not mean to say that I think the president-elect elicits or condones all or any of this behavior. I don’t know what he thinks of it. I know his previous campaign rhetoric about minority populations and his recent courting of white supremacists makes me suspicious. But what seems clear is this current, that was maybe suppressed before, feels emboldened now. And that boldness makes many, many people feel unsafe.

Here is what I mean to say, church: there is work to do.

And the other strange, small comfort in this – besides knowing that there is power in friendship – is the truth that there has always been work to do. And you know, and I know, that if the election had gone the other way – if it had gone any other way – there would still have been work to do.

The work is always the same.

Whoever is in office or isn’t, whoever we elect, endorse, get behind, or don’t, the work is always the same: we call ourselves by the name of Christ, and so we are a people who know death, and who will find ourselves with need to mourn, and who give ourselves ultimately to the practice of resurrection. We are a people who believe that every life has worth, that every inch of this planet reflects the beauty and the glory of God, that every one of our neighbors can teach us something about the presence and power of God. We are a people who know that every encounter we have with another person is a chance to learn something new about the ways God is alive and a people who celebrate that the diversity that is so hard for us to fully embrace is really a expression of the fullness of God.

And so the work is always the same: to pay attention, and to listen closely, and to love fiercely. The work is always to protect one another and to comfort one another and to challenge one another, and to challenge any system that would say that “one another” does not include all of us.

And really, all of us. Our country split almost exactly in half Tuesday night. Yamhill County went for Trump. Whichever choice you made, there are people you work with and walk with and eat with and definitely worship with and maybe live with who made different choices than you did. That difference does not make us enemies. But it can feel like that.

And when it feels like that, maybe verses like today’s can be helpful. Commentator David Ewart notes that there are six words in the Bible that are translated in our one English word for love, and that the word used in our passage for today is the trickiest of them all – agape. It’s the one that doesn’t mean romantic love, or affection, or even any sort of closeness. What it does mean, he writes, is “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. Nothing is held back. There is no hesitation. No calculation of costs and benefits. No expectation of receiving anything in return. No pay offs. There is only total desiring of the well-being of the other for their own good.”

He continues, “Oddly, this might also mean you might not like the other. Might oppose some of their behaviors. Might speak against some of what they stand for. But if you agape them, the ways you express your dislike and opposition will always also express your total desiring of their well-being.”

This love does not require a resignation to what must be or a relinquishing of once-held ideals. This love calls for resistance. That call for resistance moves this kind of love beyond reciprocity and invites us into the realm of redemption. Listen to how it happens:

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Maybe you know Walter Wink’s take on this text – that this is Jesus teaching Civil Disobedience, Nonviolent Resistance 101. That in a culture where a person’s left hand was used for bathroom functions, and so only the right hand could be used for other purposes – the like power play described here – to turn a cheek was to mess up the swing, and leave the person hitting confounded, unable to strike the way he’d wanted. It was to interrupt the violence.

And in a culture where debts between neighbors could be racked up so high that one man would literally take the coat of another’s back – for the poorer one to say “here, take my shirt also” and to stand naked in the street is to expose not only one’s self but the injustice of the whole system, to force the one collecting to face public scrutiny, maybe to shock him into seeing the inhumanity of his collection and to say, “here – here – keep your shirt on! Take your coat back, too; I don’t need it!”

Love of enemy does not ignore injustice. It exposes it. Love of enemy knows that violence harms everyone, that division hurts us all, that only revolutionary love of those we disagree passionately with and of those we’re told to fear can bring us to a place where there are no more enemies. Love of enemy is the only way to really discover the depth of the kind of power it is to be a friend.

Maybe some of us will be sad for a really long time. And maybe some of us will be celebrating for a really long time. And no doubt as the future unfolds we will be given ever-new reasons for our sadness or for our celebration, and for much more nuanced responses and emotions, too.

And in all of that, there will be work to do.

And the work will always be loving each other.

Friendship and First Things

(This post was published earlier this week on Practicing Families, a great site about doing faith with kids.)

An older man, let’s call him Abraham, has befriended my son, Oscar. Abraham attends the same church we do. I’m the pastor, so there’s always stuff to do afterwards, and my kids are left to fend for themselves, throwing paper airplanes off the balcony, seeing if they can scrounge up more cookies, while I finish conversations, turn off lights, lock doors. But Oscar has taken to reading lately, so he doesn’t mind staying late – he curls up in a big cushy chair with his book and doesn’t even notice the time passing.

Abraham also stays at church until it’s time to lock up for the day. He sits in the other big cushy chair. There are two together, and he’d claimed his first, when Oscar decided to occupy the other one. Abraham is kind, maybe a little gruff. He looked up when Oscar first came to sit by him, didn’t say much, just returned to his own book. After a few weeks of this – the older man and the young one, side by side, engrossed in their separate fictions, Abraham leaned over and told Oscar, “You know, reading will rot your brain.”

Oscar stared at him, confused, until Abraham couldn’t keep a straight face anymore. Now they’re the best of friends. Abraham tells a variation on that same joke every week: “Hey, brain-rot buddy.” “Be careful. Your brain is going to mush, all that reading.” “I’m going to get us hats made. We’ll be the ‘brain-rot club.’”

Photo on 8-10-16 at 8.58 AM

He’s also started bringing books for Oscar. Ones he’s picked up at a garage sale for a nickel, or found on a give-away shelf. Ones he thinks a boy about Oscar’s age should read. A few by Jack London. A science and history trivia book. A book of riddles. Oscar especially likes the book of riddles. They’re still mostly silent when they sit side-by-side, but every once in a while, reading that book, Oscar will laugh out loud, and Abraham will take a break from his own story, mark his page to listen to the riddle that’s delighted Oscar so.

A few months into this friendship, my boys and I attended a dinner and program at another local church. The evening was called “Piecing Community Together” and it brought together people experiencing homelessness with others who have homes, on an equal footing. Everyone shared the free meal. Everyone played games together around their tables. Everyone enjoyed the concert. We had a great time.

I told my husband about it later, praising that model. I said, “It was really nice not to be divided into those categories, you know, some people serving, other people being served. We were just all together and it felt like we made better connections that way.” My husband asked, “Who was there?” And I listed off the names of the people we knew from hosting the Community Winter Shelter, or other ways we’ve engaged with the homeless around town: Liza, Carl, Keith, Rita, Abraham… Oscar was listening.

“Abraham is homeless?” he interrupted.

I’d never realized, until that moment, that he wouldn’t have known. Abraham comes to church early and sits in the balcony, away from most of the congregation. He stays until we lock up, because it’s nice to be indoors for a while. He carries a big backpack to haul around most of his belongings. I first met him when he came in for the overnight shelter that the church opens up when the temperature drops dangerously low.

Oscar took a while to process this new information. He wants to know more of Abraham’s story. The older man shares pieces of it, once in a while, but not enough for us to know why he’s without shelter, or where he goes when he goes away. I think that’s ok. I think, actually, he’s offered us a great gift by opening up as much as he has.

And I’m really grateful for the order this all unfolded in – that Oscar knew Abraham first as a reading friend, then as a thoughtful gift-giver, then as someone to share a joke with, then as a man experiencing homelessness. If the order had been reversed, I don’t know that the same relationship would be developing between them. Something about status, about category or label, tends to stop us, to keep us apart, maybe even more insistently than how shared passions can bring us together.

I know it’s not cute, that my kid has a homeless friend. I know that Abraham’s situation is complex and that he has real, tangible and not-so-tangible needs. But I also know that one of those needs is community.

It’s all made me wonder: what comes first? What do we want to know about each other, really? How does our initial knowing of some information – the status, the category – close us off to learning something more, something other and deeper? What could develop between us if we started somewhere else?

I hope to learn some of the answers by hanging out with my kid and his generous, funny new friend.

The Dead and Dreaming

This one’s also over at Practicing Families today, but I thought I’d repost it here. I’m not a mystic or a visionary. I don’t hear voices or see apparitions. But this one time…
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Most of my dreams aren’t worth remembering. I sometimes dream about ex-boyfriends or falling from high places. I often dream about being late, or unprepared.

When my friend asked me to preach at her ordination service, I dreamed I stood in front of a sanctuary full of people and had no words (even in my dream, I knew this was not about her but about me). Then the fire alarm sounded, sprinklers let loose on everyone, and they all ran out of the sanctuary. It was only then, standing soaking wet in that empty, sacred space, that I realized I had something to say. But by that point everyone else had seen the reception tables all set up and they wanted to stay outside and snack, so I never got to say it.

And as a child, I had this recurring dream featuring a giant Chinese dragon dancing merrily through the aisles of the corner convenient store, as my friends and I tossed a beach ball over the candy and chip displays.

Stairs-4dd12275b047cAnd though those are all obviously deeply meaningful, in ways I, uh, can’t even begin to explain… there’s really only one dream that I think was a message, a gift, sent not to chastise or confuse me but as comfort and blessing.

It was a dream I had within the first week after my second son’s birth. In my dream, he was just as he was in waking life: tiny, and unaware, and brand-new. I was walking with him, cradling him, and he was wrapped in soft blankets. I walked down a series of stairs. The whole landscape was white rooftops and stairs against a deep blue, sea and sky, a Mediterranean-style scene. The path of my descent took what seemed like ages. When I reached the bottom, my mother’s mother – the woman who, growing up, I’d always referred to as “my grandma with the red hair” – was waiting. She took my newborn son from my arms and held him in her own. She spoke softly to him but I couldn’t make out her words. She rocked him back and forth. Then she handed him back to me, and I ascended the stairs.

My grandma with the red hair died almost two years before my second son’s birth. I’d been sad, after he was born, thinking he’d never get to meet her, thinking how strange it is that my family and his family are somehow the same and yet made up of different people. But that night, almost as if my sadness had been an invitation, my grandmother visited my dream to meet my son.

That moment came back to me the other day, the way that dreams sometimes catch you by surprise in your waking hours. I told my son, now five years old, about it.

He said, “Was I there?”

I said, honestly, “I don’t know.” I asked him, “Do you remember it?”

He said, “I don’t know.”

But he’s feisty, like she was. Loves candy, and hides it, like she did. Speaks his mind. Relishes a good joke. Gets mad for no good reason. All her traits. How much of that could she have taught him in those brief whispers at the bottom of that long staircase?

I don’t know. I don’t know if the dead hang around, waiting for moments to reappear among the living, to pop into our days or our dreams. I know it doesn’t happen always, or even often.

But I also know that we are part of one another. We live in and through each other. And maybe thin boundaries like the one between life and death don’t get to determine exactly how that happens.

The Personal is Political: Feminist Mothering

Letter-Writing Event

Dena Douglas Hobbs is doing a month’s worth of mothering posts on her blog, Centering Down: a sort of celebration of all of the different ways we mother, and all that we learn along the way, about ourselves, our children, our world. My contribution to the series is up today – I hope you’ll go see it (here), and read the other wonderful pieces she’s posted, too!

The First Letter of God’s Name…

Here’s an article I wrote (a few months back) about the trouble I sometimes have, talking to my kids about the cross. It’s posted at a great blog full of lots of people’s contributions on family and faith… If you sense these same tensions, I’d love to know how you live in them…
http://practicingfamilies.com/2013/07/31/the-first-letter-of-gods-name/photo-20