Words that break our hearts, again

On Friday, May 26, a white supremacist began threatening two teenage girls -one African American, one Muslim, wearing a hijab – on the Max train in Northeast Portland.  Three men came to their defense, and were stabbed.  Two died, Rick John Best and Taliesen Namkai-Meche; the third, Micah Fletcher, was wounded but survived.

The first inkling that something had happened showed up on Facebook, as friends wondered why there were so many sirens, why so many police were racing down Broadway.  Then a post that there may have been a stabbing at the Max station.  Then the news.  Then the disbelief.  Then the tears.

What do you even say?  That the violence was so sudden and vicious?  That hate is ever present, and love is too?  The words of my sermon on Sunday felt flimsy; I’m not sure there are even the right words to say.

Except when I read that Taliesen’s last words were about love, his love for everyone on that train.  Except when I read that Micah is a poet, and he has spoken since the attack, words that I find encouraging and courageous and challenging.  Maybe words do matter.

Later that same evening I learned that one of my favorite crafter of words, author, prose-poet, essayist Brian Doyle, died, having succumbed to the ravages of a brain tumor.  I wish I could have read what he might have written about the Max train and the girls and the men.

I went to bed that night with my heart broken in new places.  I woke up Saturday and worked on setting aside all the feeling and thinking about all of it.  Oregon has a terrible history when it comes to welcoming people who aren’t white.  Portland does too, from red-lining to KKK presence to new threats.  While researching how to pronounce Taliesen’s name, I ended up on a white supremacist blog, which I quickly exited but not before reading part of a ghastly post.

The president, by his thrown-off, impetuous words, has opened the door to freedom of hate speech, which took the form of harassing two young women who were sitting on a train, doing nothing more than that.  Haters are emboldened.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will terrify us.

Words led to actions.  Words of hate led to a knife being brandished.  Words of love led to quick courage.  Words led to death.  Words led to fear.

And now words are bringing our community together and tearing at it too.  The mayor tried to limit a free speech rally.  The ACLU said he couldn’t.  Words of sympathy are pouring out, as are donations for the families of the victims.  Words of blame, words of being afraid are heard and printed.

What would happen if there was silence?  What would happen if all the words written in chalk at the Max station were erased?  What if there were only our tears, and the flowers, and quiet?  Would our silence be understood as cowardice or defeat or acquiescence?  Would silence be healing or hiding?

Are words hollow, or all they full?

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος

A dalliance of daffodils

A dalliance of daffodils –
they would, of course, dally, with that ruffled collar all set out
like some Elizabethan earl
happy to be out of the cold dark of the earth
happy to have burst the bonds of the bulb

Then there’s the intoxication of the daphne –
Thymelaeaceae her proper name
A rose by any other name could never smell this sweet, this heady,
this alluring, this…
She is joy touched with poignant lemon
sad perhaps that she cannot flower for very long
But she’ll be back next year

The trees are all budded
Like middle schoolers waiting for their first dance
A little embarrassed to be there at all, at the ends of the limb
But when they burst open the fun begins

Spring is not my favorite season, but maybe it should be
there’s so much LIFE everywhere
And relief that soon enough the rains will end
And the bees will come pay a visit to the raspberry blossoms
And the crows will start moving acorns to the car’s path, instant dinner
And whatever attention span the kids once had is now so very gone

No matter what,
No matter the plagues, the politicians, the ploys,
Spring arrives, like your favorite cousin visiting again
Keeping you up late in the moonlight
Inviting you to her own world
Promising so much
Never growing old
The season that never dies
Immortal yet fleeting, she is

And worth every minutenarcissus-pseudonarcissus-324110_960_720

When the women told the story

Stories in the Bible that feature women do show up now and then, not as often as many of us would like, and when they do show up, the women aren’t seen in as good a light as often as many of us would like. This week we get one of those stories: the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus.

I’ve been at a conference these past couple of days and the guiding story for our gathering has also been this story. It’s one I know well. I’ve studied it, written papers on it, created a retreat around it, and I’ve preached on it more than once. In some ways I feel as though I know it inside and out.

The first day of the conference we began with worship, fittingly enough since it was a church people conference. It was time to hear the scripture lesson. I settled back, waiting for someone to open a Bible, turn the page to John 4, and begin.

Instead, six women took the stage. Some I knew, some I knew of. They were different ages, different sizes and shapes, different colors; they are all powerful and faithful. And they started to tell the story of another woman, a different woman, a woman who was also powerful and faithful.

It’s hard to describe exactly what went through my head. It may have been something late like, “Oh my God – these women are going to tell the woman’s story.”  It may have been, “At last, women are going to tell this woman’s story.”  I’m really not sure what went through my mind because my heart was pierced as these six women were telling the testimony of one of their sisters.

I’ve never, ever, ever heard this story told in this way. It was riveting. They did not speak in one voice – you could tell as they told their part of the story that they had different takes on it. But through these women’s voices the story was reclaimed from thousands of years of interpretation by men who have seen this woman as a hussy, a prostitute or a slut, a woman who couldn’t keep a man satisfied or well fed, a woman who talked too much, a woman who had been shamed by her entire village.  Over the millennia she has been twisted into one more fallen woman who must be saved by a man.

But last Monday, this woman was reclaimed by her sisters (and by the two men and one woman who preached this text.) In their posture and their voice, in their inflection and pauses, they came around this woman and gathered with her at the well.

I so wish my daughter had been there to see it, to hear it, to witness it. I wish she had seen that group of women do what women have done between the lines of scripture for so many years: claim their own space in the sacred story.

 

Since originally posting this, the link to the video of the service has been posted.  If you’re interested, click on this link; go to Opening Worship.  The scripture begins around 19:15.

Breathing deep

img_0262I have, in my lifetime, experienced both panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  I’m not talking about nerves, the rumbly stomach before stepping on stage or into the pulpit, but the real thing: an impending sense of doom that is completely out of control.  A fear of nothing and everything.  A heart pounding so hard I think it might explode.  A sense that I might die.  It is excruciating.

The first happened while I was in seminary during a guided meditation, which you would think would be a pretty safe place to be. Not that day. Another happened a few months later while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, something I’d done dozens of times before. Bridges have been hard ever since.  The attacks are a rare occurrence nowadays, partly because of age and partly because of work I’ve done to manage them.

I find myself using those anxiety-managing techniques again these days.  I don’t experience that impending sense of doom from nowhere, but I do experience a high level of worry about many things.  I worry about funding for programs for people on the margins.  I worry about war.  I worry about economic collapse.  I worry about people never speaking to each other again.  I worry about the state of the world.

As a person of faith, I am well aware of the many, many things Jesus said about not worrying and right now I find them – and him – annoying.  I also know that constant worry is not good for me or the people around me.  I’m keeping an eye on my eating and my sleeping.  I’ve started coloring postcards, an activity I find relaxing.  I cut myself off after one too many articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Atlantic.

I pray that God will lift my sagging spirit.  I pray more regularly.  I practice deep breathing.  I read daily things from Father Richard Rohr (you can sign up for them here – today’s was particularly helpful.)  I turn off the tv and computer. I look for the good, and hold fast to it.

raftEvery night before we go to sleep, my husband, our daughter, our dog, and I all sit on our bed reading (except the dog).  I tell them it feels like we’re on a life raft, this big bed of ours, all together, safe, for the time being amidst the chaotic currents of the day’s events.  They laugh at me, in the good way.  Still, they are my life raft. And that helps me to worry a little less.

Until the next day comes.

You are not powerless 

Do you have a pen, a postcard, and a stamp?

Do you have a phone or a computer?

Do you have friends or colleagues?

Do you have a community?

Do you have a voice?

Do you have a heart, a mind, and a soul?

If you do, then know this: you have all the power you need.

I’ve been a part of many conversations in recent days and people are so frustrated because they feel like they have no power to stop things that are happening that they believe are deeply, morally wrong.

So in one sense, yes, many of us are powerless.  We have not been elected to public office where decisions are made, orders are signed, and laws are enacted.  We do not sit in the Oval Office.  We do not have the president’s ear.  We cannot take away his pens.

But we have the power of our convictions which are backed up by facts, by research, by journalism, and for some of us, by the basic tenets of our faith tradition.  That is not nothing; that is something.

We have the power of showing up, the more the merrier.
We have the power of reminding those whom we elected that another election will come around, and my vote is as valuable as anyone else’s.
We have the power to go to someone who is hurting and angry and afraid and say to them, “You are not alone.  I am here with you.”

Having power is not the issue; using our power is.  Because if we do not pick up that pen and stick on that stamp; if we do not pick up the phone and call the people who need to be called out; if we do not exercise our right to vote; if we do not go to the one who is hurting and angry and afraid; if we do not stand by them – 

Then we have wasted all that others have earned for us, all those rights that people fought and died for.  Then we deserve what we get.

Some of you who read this blog are people I love deeply.  Some of you who read this blog are people I know a little.  Some of you who read this blog are people I have never met, and may never meet.  But to all of you, I will say this:

You have a beautiful soul; do not pollute it with hate.  Fire it with righteous anger, but do not let hate take over.

You and I are capable of doing small things in great love, as Mother Teresa once said.  This war will not be fought in huge battles but in small, every day, every moment acts of resistance and hope.

You are not alone.  You have friends and colleagues. You may have to travel a ways to find them.  You may have to start therapy.  You may need to get off Facebook and Twitter for a while.  But you are not alone, and you are not crazy.

You and I need bread for this journey, and really good hiking boots, and a walking stick, and more water than we need – so we can share it with others.  We need tents and sleeping bags and camp stoves.  I write metaphorically, of course, but what I mean is this: this journey will not end tomorrow or next week.  We are in this for the long haul.  We need to be prepared and healthy.  Rested and well read.  Not overindulging in the things that are bad for us.  We need to be armed with the facts of reality, not the latest theory.  We cannot use up all our energy now; more is going to come.

And maybe more now than ever we need art.  We need music and beauty.  We need all the gifts Mother Nature has to offer.  We need Corita Kent and Christo and Banksy.  We need Mary Oliver and Langston Hughes and Andy Borowitz.  We need Bruce Springsteen.  We need to breathe clean air and watch the waves on the ocean or get up early enough to see the sunrise or just go for a walk and say hi to the neighbors.

We are not done, friends.  Not by a long shot.

We have only just begun.

img_9684

 

Giving Voice

(Below is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, which I am posting because a few folks have asked for it.  The title of the sermon that appeared in the bulletin was for the first sermon I wrote; this one is still untitled.  But the blog post is called “Giving Voice” because, as  my husband commented, the sermon gave voice to the thoughts and feeling many have been having.)

Texts: Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5:1-12

If you’ve ever had a guest in your home who stayed for a while, you know what a challenge that can be. In the summer of 2015, a friend of mine from high school – with whom I’d not been in touch since high school – stayed with us for ten days. She was moving to Portland, I had learned on Facebook, and I offered our house as a home base while she looked for a place to live.

She was a perfectly polite guest, but it’s hard to have someone else around, especially when you only have 1.5 bathrooms. Your guest’s schedule may differ from your own; they may eat different food, watch different tv shows, wear patchouli and you can’t stand patchouli (my friend did not wear patchouli). Your guest may start to grate on your nerves; you may start to grate on their nerves, despite all your generous hospitality.

My friend developed a terrible cold while staying with us. During her ten days with us she went to the beach for a day and a half and miraculously the cold went away, only to return when she came back to us. She thought she might be allergic to something. She thought we might have mold in our basement, where our guest room was. She was right.

So a year later, with a generous loan from the bank, we have gotten rid of the mold from our basement, and fixed the leaking pipes, and the crack in the foundation, and the drainage system. My friend’s visit proved to be expensive for us. It also proved to be quite beneficial to us in the long run.

My friend, with whom I had not spoken for thirty years, was a bit of a stranger to me. And I will be the first to admit that welcoming the stranger is hard. Welcoming the stranger is also a moral imperative, a constant thread throughout our holy scripture. Welcoming the stranger is the basis not only for our faithful understanding of hospitality, but also the way in which we live out what the prophet Micah commanded: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

There is injustice in the world. There has always been injustice in the world. This week the world observed Holocaust Remembrance Day and I could not hear the news without getting teary, listening to the survivors of concentration camps tell their stories. Part of the story of the Holocaust, the story of Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people, is the anti-Semitism that pervaded the world, including the United States.

Let us not forgot our own role in that. “In June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.”

Then, “in the summer of 1942, the SS Drottningholm set sail carrying hundreds of… Jewish refugees, en route to New York City from Sweden. Among them was Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, a 28-year-old from Germany, who was also seeking entry to the United States. When he arrived, he told the same story as his fellow passengers: As a victim of persecution, he wanted asylum from Nazi violence.

“But during [the] interview process… [his] story began to unravel.” Through a long investigation and trial, he was found guilty of being a spy for the Gestapo. Then “his story would be used as an excuse to deny visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime.

“Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Yet today, historians believe that Bahr’s case was practically unique—and the concern about refugee spies was blown far out of proportion.”

There was justice for Bahr, who was found guilty of his crime. But where was the justice for the Jews trying to save their lives and the lives of their children?

Earlier this week I attended a gathering of folks from the faith community, from the Muslim community, from APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), IRCO (the International Refugee Center of Oregon). We were there for a press conference which did not happen that day, but as we waited to see what would unfold, we introduced ourselves.

This is what I heard: people are angry and afraid. People who came to this country as immigrants and refugees are afraid. People whose skin is not pale like mine are afraid. Person after person who spoke – Portlanders who are contributing to the good of our community – spoke through tears and strained voices.

I believe many of us who are majority people – we who are white Christian Americans – have forgotten how to do justice, how to love kindness, how to walk humbly with God.

I live a comfortable life. I have a home with a room set aside just for guests. I have a job I love. My child goes to a fantastic public school. There is no good reason why I should have to worry myself about the plight of people across the world. I’m good. I have everything I need. I can just stay in my little bubble.

Except for this: I believe in God and I love Jesus and everything he taught about how to be human. And try as I might, I cannot turn away from the 3000 year old teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I cannot turn away from the tug in my heart. I cannot turn away from that voice that whispers into the depth of my soul, “Do you not see My children who are suffering?”

The words of Matthew 25 haunt not only my dreams but also my waking thoughts.
“…I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not give me clothing,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
“… ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I don’t know if I believe in eternal punishment. Most days I believe that at the end we will be called to account for how we lived. I will admit I could be wrong about that. I don’t know if I believe in Hell. But I do believe there are people who live Hell on earth, in part because comfortable people like me do nothing about working for justice for them, offering kindness to them, or walking humbly with God.

So let me say, quite plainly, something about Friday’s executive order – to suspend the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days; to stop receiving refugees from Syria indefinitely; and to bar from entering the United States for 90 days refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.  I think this executive order is immoral and stinks of fear and hatred. I am not alone. Just ask the Pope or Dick Cheney.

As the primary preacher here, I am aware of the one-sided voice of the pulpit. I know there are some who would love to hear political sermons every week, and some who never, ever want to hear a political sermon. Because I believe so deeply in welcoming the stranger, every time I write a sermon that veers into the political, I picture the faces of those I know in the congregation whose politics, I imagine, are different from mine. Because I think we come to worship for a variety of reasons, and because I know that we need to be encouraged as much as we need to be challenged, I will not preach a political sermon every week.

But this week I have felt compelled to because politics has collided head-on into faith. This executive order shows no justice, no kindness, and no humility. It flies in the face of the imperative to welcome the stranger, to remember that the Israelites were refugees, and Jesus was a refugee. And I don’t know what to do, because I am powerless to undo that action.

But I – and you – can continue to welcome the stranger into our midst. It is hard, uncomfortable even, like having a house guest who wears patchouli for ten days.

I think about the courage and humility it takes to be the stranger, too. I think about the first two women to be ordained as elders here at Westminster, and how strange or uncomfortable it must have been for all those men on session to have women in their midst.

I think about the courage it took for the first people of color and the first bi-racial couple to come to Westminster, the courage of their presence where they did not look like others around them.

I think about the courage it took for those first gay and lesbian and transgender folks to say who they are, how brave it was for them to come to church when all the big C church had ever done was tell them they were, in the core of their being, wrong.

We who are comfortable may feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. Discomfort won’t kill us. It may make us grow, though. Doing justice may make us uncomfortable too. It’s still the right thing to do. Loving kindness and walking humbly with God are blessings, they are cups that runneth over, they are the reward we get for following this God who calls us to great and challenging and world-changing things. Blessed are the kind and humble, indeed.

I want to leave you with a story that may help. It may not. But it’s a good story, and I give the last word to a man named Darren O’Conner.

“My dad and I, him a Trump supporter, me, Green Party supporter. He believes we went into Iraq (twice) for good reasons, I believe it was for oil and power…. Both of us speak out for the poor, both of us have spent much of our lives being poor, both of us advocate for unhoused people, both of us bring them into our homes. My dad, however, does so for months to years at a time.

“A couple of years ago, he brought a man into his home who had pancreatic cancer, an extremely lethal disease, expecting the man had weeks to live. He lived much longer, and my dad and his wife walked his path with him, providing shelter. Despite our political differences, we don’t differ on this: every person has value, everyone deserves love, and every time we step in to help, we are the ones who come out enriched….

“… I love him, and sometimes I just can’t talk about things we disagree on. So we don’t.

“My dad now has pancreatic cancer himself, and his life is in God’s hands. I pray often that God will continue letting him do his work…. In my prayers, I accept that God will do what God wills, it’s not for me to demand anything. But I hope and pray for more years of being able to agree and disagree about most anything and to still share love with [my father] John Malcolm O’Connor, blood of my blood, bone of my bones. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.

“This life is temporary y’all. Our walk here is not meant to be about what we can accumulate, unless those things are friendship, love, friendship, justice, friendship, helping others, friendship, common ground.”

Amen.

 

Thanks be to the custodians

mopAfter we all leave the church building on Christmas Eve – after the old friends who grew up here reconnect and go over to Broadway to find a place to have a drink together; after the choir trundles back downstairs to hang up their robes and put away their candles (you will put away your candles, won’t you?) and says ‘see you in the morning’; after the pastors hang up our robes and collect the sweet little gift bags that make their way to the office; after the deacons scour the pews and find some bulletins and a glasses case and hopefully no one’s cell phone – after we all leave this building on Christmas Eve, our faithful custodian will still be there.

We will say good night to him, of course, and thank you, and see you in the morning and do you want us to stay with you till you’re done, but he will say no. No, I’m fine.
And then I imagine he will double check the other building and turn off some stray lights. He’ll make sure the Christmas tree lights are unplugged, as well as the lights on the wreath in the balcony, and that the sound system is off. He’ll make sure the candles are really, truly extinguished. He may restock the paper goods in the restrooms. He probably won’t vacuum , and that’s fine. He’ll check the building to make sure everyone has left, and he’ll turn off the final lights, and set the alarm, and make his way home an hour after all the rest of us.

I am grateful to the custodians, the ones who work at our church and all the custodians, who are the first to come and the last to go, the ones who turn the lights on and off, the ones who do the cleaning that most of us don’t want to do, the ones who fix dripping pipes and restock supplies, the ones who sweat or freeze down in the boiler room when the dang thing won’t work (again), who graciously receive all our complaints with the patience of Job.

There is something holy in that work, don’t you think? There’s something in all those tasks that seem so mundane that echoes the divine a bit. Think about it. The first to show up and the last to leave. The one who cleans up the messes. The one who hears all the complaints with an expansive heart. The one who makes sure our spaces are safe and warm and welcoming with the most pragmatic of things.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus comes back, he won’t seek out all the custodians and janitors and sextons first. They know. They know what it’s like to be a bit lonely in work whose scope is hard to appreciate by lay folk like you and me; they know what it’s like to clean up messes that we thoughtlessly left behind. They, like him, are the ones who are often unseen, unacknowledged, unappreciated.

At Christmas we appreciate Jesus very much. We are so glad he was born, not simply because it gives us a chance to celebrate. We appreciate Jesus because he did something he didn’t have to do: he put on the mantle of human flesh, as that saying goes; he limited the divine unlimitedness to know us and save us, however we understand those verbs. We appreciate that little Lord asleep on the hay, that infant so tender and mild, the one whom shepherds greet with anthems sweet.

We appreciate him less during other parts of the year, as the snow melts and carols are replaced by love songs or Irish jigs or “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” or whatever seasonal song needs to blast away in the elevator. We acknowledge Jesus less in July. He’s still at work, healing, cleaning up after us, receiving all the complaints. So maybe we can work on acknowledging him a bit more in July or September or Groundhog’s Day.

In the meantime, think about those janitors and custodians:  the ones at church and the school janitors, Lord love them; the folks who clean up airplanes, especially after a trans-continental flight; the ones in hospitals and nursing homes and stadiums. If you’re so moved, seek one out. Say thank you.

It’s a holy thing to do for someone who does holy work.