Monday, October 5, 2015

A plea for peace.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." -Matthew 5:9

The first time I remembered a mass shooting, I was in 8th grade. I don't remember how I heard, but I remember a pall being cast over the entire school as we sat there in classrooms much like the ones at Columbine High School, and wondered if one of our classmates could pull out a gun and kill us as easily. This was a national tragedy, senseless and horrible. We talked about violent video games and Marilyn Manson and how those things had influenced the young men responsible, and yet there was an odd silence about the most obvious culprit: the access that two high school boys had to guns. Schools began installing metal detectors and checking bags for guns, and despite the depth of tragedy, nothing changed. Four months later, twelve more people were killed by a disturbed man with a gun. Next was a shooting that killed seven at a concert, but it didn't stop. In fact, year after year more and more lives were lost to this epidemic, and we watched in horror, and silence. When a madman murdered 26 people, 20 of whom were elementary school children at Sandy Hook, we railed against the tragedy of mental illness, further stigmatizing a community of mostly silent sufferers. And nothing changed. When Christians praying in church were murdered, we were outraged... at racism. Yet the rights of citizens to purchase firearms almost totally unrestricted remained unchallenged. And last week, a disturbed man with easy access to weapons walked onto campus and killed nine people and injured nine more before taking his own life. It was the 264th mass shooting this year.

Today, you and I are now more likely to die by gun violence than in a car accident. If you are a woman like me, you're twice as likely. Some are calling it a mental illness crisis, or a race issue. Those things may be factors, but in the end what it is is a hostage situation, with the very vocal minority of gun lobbyists and conspiracy theorists holding the entirety of the United States hostage to the very real possibility of death by firearms. To me, this is yet another example of human greed and selfishness and the forces of evil railing against the kingdom of God. Because while I am unlikely to be killed by gun violence given my situation, there is no peace for me, or you, while our brothers and sisters suffer death and the their loved ones are destroyed by grief.

It's easy to say that this is a political issue and not a church or faith issue. After all, it's not good churchgoing people perpetuating these mass shootings, or faith communities suffering. Except when it is. But it goes far beyond whether or not we as people of faith are affected by these tragedies directly: it goes to the heart of who we are called to be as people of faith. As a Christian, it is my belief that the suffering of others is my responsibility. Jesus took on our suffering in order to redeem us by his death and resurrection, and left his disciples and those of us who call ourselves Little Christs to continue this mission of bringing God's reign of peace to earth. Brothers and sisters, we are failing. We are failing phenomenally to relieve this pain and suffering. We are failing to speak out against the voices that say that their "freedom" (whatever that means) is worth the innocent deaths of even one man, woman, or child. No personal freedom is worth another's life, my friends. We are called as Christians to lay down our lives, not to horde weapons and ensure easy access to devices intended only for death for our own greedy ends or paranoid delusions.

The minority of gun owners against stricter background checks and other safeguards against these horrific shootings would say that restricting access to these weapons would make it too easy for a tyrannical government to come to power, and they argue that any comprehensive registration program would be the first step toward the government taking their guns. This is insane rhetoric, defying all attempts at logic and reason, ignoring the stability of our government and historical and global precedent, and deploying slippery slope arguments that essentially amounts to welcoming John Wayne Gacy into your house to protect you from the Boogeyman. And this small group paired with a gigantic, wealthy lobby is leaving our citizens bereft of loved ones taken too soon and living in terror that they could be next. Nowhere is safe: not a mall, beach, theater, or church. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” This means that ultimately any stance that places unrestricted access to guns above human life is not just anti-life but anti-Christ, because Christ called us not to kill but to die. Are we to continue uselessly grieving tragedy after tragedy, or will we lay down our apathy and desire to look anywhere but at the pain and do something to foster life, hope, and true freedom, the kind that comes when my brother or sister is safe, and fed, and clothed, and well?

I was giving some thought to what could be done about this, and it occurred to me that the government does not easily change when money is involved. So money needs to become involved. The worker's rights movement worked not because people hopped on facebook and voiced their concern while clutching their pearls: it worked because money talks. We need to unionize against guns. We need to divest from organizations that support gun manufacture or is in any way related to the NRA like these 34 companies. We need to threaten organizations with boycott if they do not denounce the NRA and write to our senators, governors, and congresspeople to pass firmer background check laws and more stringently enforced waiting periods, to close loopholes on internet or gun show sales, and to demand that selling a gun without the proper checks and waiting period become a felony with high fines and jail time. If we want to make a difference, we need to think like a lobbyist, and use the strength of our wallets and our votes to press for this change.

It is a false assumption to think that posting sad pictures of grieving family members and shaking our heads about gun violence is enough. To quote President Obama: "Thoughts and prayers are not enough." Only getting these guns out of the hands of those who would use them to hurt will be enough to show how broken we are by this tragedy and those that came before. We are a people given a mission and vocation to comfort the grieving, not look the other way. We are a people whose vocation is the usher wholeness, wellness, and peace onto this earth, and yet we stand by and complacently, comfortably even, remain hostage to weapons and pathetic background checks with three day limitations and stores who would rather earn a few dollars than save a few lives. If you, like me, are fed up with the voice of unreasonableness and the worship of the almighty dollar over love of our fellow humans, please share this post. Especially if you are a responsible gun owner who understands the value of proper licensing and rigorous background checks. Talk to your pastors, your political representatives, and take action. We cannot be held hostage any longer.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Healing Through Hurts

This blog post was originally written for the Working with Spirit Blog, which is maintained by the chaplain department at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

My husband and I recently suffered a family loss. It was difficult, of course, as these things always are, but as a chaplain I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are loving, understanding, and patient with grief. I was able to take some time to heal and when I came back I found myself nervous. Grief has a funny way of popping up when we least expect it, and I had found myself getting teary at the strangest things because of it. As a spiritual and emotional caregiver, one of the things we are always conscious of is transference, or conflating your patient's pain with your own. This is problematic both for the patients and the caregivers for obvious reasons, so it figures that within three weeks of returning to work I found myself sitting across the room from a patient who had just gone through almost the same thing I had.

Ordinarily, I would never disclose such a fresh loss to a patient, but this patient's pain was so raw, and she looked at me and asked if her grief was normal. She said her friends and family didn't understand, but I did. I did because I had found myself somewhere further along in my healing process, but with a fresh enough memory that I knew that, if not normal, she seemed to be experiencing something similar to what I had experienced. So I did it. I told her of my loss. It's a frightening thing to wonder if you're doing the right thing or not, and to have that moment of pause. She looked at me and burst into tears, and my heart pounded because I was thinking, “Oh boy, now she's crying for both of us and that's not what I wanted!” I told her I'm doing fine and don't want this to be about me, and she interrupted me and sobbed: “It feels so good knowing somebody else understands!” She said she was sorry for my loss, and she thanked me. She thanked me for sharing my pain, my wound, and I felt a gentle warmth, like perhaps my hurt was not completely without purpose after all.

We can hardly live without collecting bumps and bruises along the way. To open the heart is to risk it: to fall in love is to risk rejection, to have a child is to risk all the pain of rebellion and the fears of loss or estrangement, and even learning a new skill risks failure and raising all of those hard questions about ourselves we don't want to face. Probably none of us make it to adulthood without some kind of loss, trauma, insecurity, or hurt, and we bring that story, that self with us when we walk into a patient room and listen to their story, their hurt. Whether it's physical illness, or emotional/spiritual turmoil, these things touch us. They remind of us those things in us, and they sometimes cut a little too close to the bone for comfort. At the same time, those old scars and even some of the fresher wounds create an opportunity for connection. It's not professional or advised to walk around with our hearts on our sleeves all the time, but neither can we close our hearts to the hurts we encounter as we journey with our patients.

Henri Nouwen writes: “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” How can we be healers if we can't get in touch with the experiences of our illnesses, struggles, grief, and rough edges? How can you understand how to hope against all hope, to hope even when the prognosis is grim, to find something to hold to as you take your dying breath, if never you have walked that valley of the shadow of death in some small way? We can't, and it's silly to try because we bring those things with us every step of the way. We all have hearts able to be, as theologian Parker Palmer says, not just broken, but broken open in order to hold the broken hearted before us and walk with them toward healing.

This visit with the woman whose loss was so close to my own reminded me of this simple caregiving strategy, which bears so much healing fruit, and that is to care from your broken heart. Take care of your heart, of course, but don't be afraid to be truly touched by the wounds of another. My own personal life philosophy is that it is in our weakness that we are made strong, and so I invite and encourage you to be weak. Be open to really listening to the many hurts you encounter in these walls today. Let your hurts and scars and the victory of having carried on be a beacon of hope to those who have not yet learned they can survive their hurts. And know that in baring your heart in this beautiful, holy vulnerability you invite healing for them, and for you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The New Purpose Driven Life

I've been thinking a lot lately about purpose. I'm in a transition period right now, having finished my residency and beginning to do work as a staff chaplain on a casual basis at the same hospital, while also waiting to see what will unfold at another hospital, and as always, waiting for call to a parish. Waiting waiting waiting waiting! This much waiting could drive a person crazy, and I'll admit that it's not the easiest thing to do. With my husband wondering what will become of my formerly very regular paychecks, and finding myself with large chunks of time away from work, there is a sense of "when will my life begin?" (I may or may not have been watching Tangled this weekend...)

This job search and creation and discernment process has been going on for months now, but today I had what one might consider a moment of zen about it. It happened while I was home doing errands, cleaning my house, hanging out with the dog, and chatting periodically with my husband throughout. A year ago, this day would have made me anxious as hell. I would have been lonely, texting people to hang out, filling every second with something in order to give myself a sense of purpose. And I did keep busy, but I also had plenty of moments not filled with Things or Plans or Goings On, and really, I was all right. I was actually content.

Three years ago, I was stuck in a small town and having a hard time feeling like my existence made much of a difference in the world. Every moment I was not doing something or speaking to someone made me want to cry because I just felt so directionless. My purpose, which as a student and volunteer and worker had always been so external, had all been shifted and turned upside down, leaving me mostly with me, and that's scary. Because when the purpose is only external, any threats or changes to that threatens who I am. Today I realized that I have learned to carry my purpose around with me, and it's something much broader just than my work as a minister or my role as a wife or friend or whatever. My purpose is, quite simply as Christ says: "Love one another as I have loved you.

Today, that purpose meant spending an hour mating loose socks from the bottom of the closet, and sorting out all the shirts and boxers with holes in them, and carefully putting the clothes P wears most on the top of the various piles so he has easy access to them. I could have organized my half of the closet and left his a disaster, because let's be honest it will be a disaster again pretty soon. But it was a service done out of love, the same as the love it takes to become covered in impossible to remove white hairballs from brushing our husky, or the love that compels me to show up and bear the stories of people struggling with drugs, alcohol, trauma, illness, and death. It's Christ's love, given so freely to me, that defines who I am and gives purpose to every breath.

Because of that, we don't have to doubt so much when our roles aren't clearly defined, or when life is shifting underneath us like sand. We can carry forward knowing grace and hope and new life are within us re-creating us and molding us more closely into God's image. We don't have to be measured by our doing, but by God's. My sage advice for today is to not fear the what ifs and I don't knows and what nows, but to breathe in the love of God that surpasses all understanding and rest in it, knowing your life and work and parenting and friendships and house cleaning and errands and unemployment and everything else are all defined by how beloved you are, making your purpose in any and every situation as simple as being overtaken by grace and so that it flows into the world through you.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

An open letter to the ELCA

Grace and peace to you in the name of Christ Jesus our Redeemer and Head!

            This letter has been a long time in coming from me. Not because I am an innately wave-making person, but because I feel I am doing a disservice to my fellow leaders in God’s church by not speaking up on this matter. For a little background, I grew up in a Congregationalist tradition, where church leaders rose up from within the people based on their gifts in leadership. As such, I came late into the ELCA and brought with me a healthy skepticism toward the institution and the office of ordained ministers. When I search the Bible, I find very little about a church body appointing leaders, and read much more about all of us together participating in Christ’s church in our own unique ways (1 Corinthians 12:12). The best explanation I heard in seminary came from Dr. Steven Paulson who, when pressed, said that it is a matter of protection—to assure that the church is served well, and that the sacraments cannot be misused. I struggled with this explanation for a long time, but after considering my own less than stellar church experiences came to accept that although this process of candidacy and ordination is not perfect, it does provide some measure of control over what happens in our church.
            I will back up again and say that I came to ministry rather reluctantly. Although I have now fully embraced my vocation as a minister, I felt for a long time that God should send somebody else. My brother speaks so much better than me, can’t he do it? I don’t like those Ninevites! Send somebody else. Ultimately, God’s call won over my reservations and I found myself in seminary and diving into ministry whole heartedly. Internship was challenging, but I learned to love parish work, from preaching to confirmation and even (I know!) public speaking engagements in the community! But alas, during my time in seminary I found myself, as young people do, enamored with another young person who had just recently joined the University of Minnesota as faculty. It quickly became apparent that we were called to be together, and we became engaged around the same time he was beginning the arduous process to gain tenure. Because of his excellence in his field, this turned out to be quite straight forward for him and in no time he received a nice little plaque declaring that he could never be fired from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. My plans for going where the Spirit willed were upended. As anybody facing a geographical restriction knows, this is not an easy issue to deal with. In academics they call it the “two body problem” and one that universities go to great lengths to work with. In the ELCA, it is called an unwillingness to be open to the call of the church.
            Luckily for me, I happen to have a degree in psychology and an interest in a variety of different ministries, and so I found myself applying to a chaplain residency at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, and soon I was working there sharing the gospel through mostly one on one visits. My first clinical assignment was to a neurological-surgical intensive care unit where I ministered to families in crisis with counseling, comfort, blessing services, baptisms, and more. I worked not only with patients, but also ministering to staff who might not have any connection to a faith community. I witnessed beautiful, sacramental moments where Christ became flesh in and among us. And yet, when a patient asked for communion I had to go talk to one of the other ELCA ministers who had, regardless of their desire for it, put in their “time” as parish ministers before going onto their actual vocations here at Fairview. This didn’t bother me much, because ministry on an ICU does feel quite different from a parish, but all the while I was seeing a paucity of openings within the Twin Cities for a first-call, inexperienced young minister wondering if I would ever be welcomed into the office to which I feel so strongly called.
Before long, I switched assignments to behavioral health, which includes people suffering from chemical dependency and mental illness. These folks are housed together on locked units and stay from a few days to several months. As chaplain on behavioral units, I led weekly spirituality groups on topics such as hope, healing from shame, being the hero of your own story, and finding forgiveness. I “preached” daily to those who did not feel God’s love in their lives. I wrote services to remember baptism, to celebrate joyous moments, and to grieve loved ones who had died. My patients referred to me as “my pastor” and one gentlemen in particularly called me “woman of God.” Patients who I had helped in particularly poignant ways would chat me up and tell others to talk to me. “She’s cool, even if you’re not into that God stuff,” I heard my drug addicted patients say. Because of the length of these patients’ stays, we formed, every few weeks, a new community which would be together for some time. Sometimes small groups would want to listen to hymns or Christian popular songs with me. Sometimes we would gather to pray. Sometimes after my groups (which are interfaith and inclusive to all religions), groups of patients would form prayer groups of their own. And yet we say this is not part of the office of the ordained. I have become increasingly frustrated as I look at my gifts and skills, and the difficulty of finding a parish call which suits them, and see an endless wait.
Ordination is important. It is important not just because of being allowed into the “club” with the ability to preside at the Lord’s Supper, but because of the authority that it represents. We non-ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament (just the one, it seems) serve God’s church in ways different from, but on the whole quite the same as, congregations. The office of ordination gives us authority from a church body that has recognized our education, our insight, our gifts, and our ability to gather the people together. To be barred from this office because of a misfortune of geography or because we possess different skills and passions than those who thrive in the parish is disappointing. It is disappointing both to those of us who are left out, but mostly it is disappointing to those in need because it limits the ways in which the world can be served by those who are called.
I bring this up not only because I personally would stand to benefit if the ELCA would begin to officially recognize this work as part of the work of the church, but because I think it is woefully detrimental to our parishes to give ministers called to chaplaincy or other specialized work no choice but to spend time in a parish when their skills and gifts cannot be fully utilized there. It is unfair both to the pastors who must waste their time doing so, and it is particularly unfair to the churches who would receive such leaders. The church faces an enormously high burnout rate among its leaders, and to pastor a congregation is to be preacher, counselor, building manager, on-call chaplain and more. Who would want a pastor bringing less than their whole heart to this work? What minister would want to lie to a church about his or her devotion simply in order to be ordained? If we consider ourselves a church that truly recognizes the priesthood of all believers, with the office of ordination as the officially sanctioned position that recognizes outstanding, educated, creative, and passionate leaders serving our church (which I define not as congregations but as all those professing Christ risen), why are we limiting how those leaders function by insisting on time spent in one particular context?
I do not have my stole, but I am a pastor to those that I serve. I never refer to myself this way, but my patients begin to recognize my “invisible stole” the moment I sit down with them to hear their story. I work with people who may have never been seen for more than their illness, addiction, or failures, and I am privileged get to love them with my whole heart, and that loving is significant to them because I bring the authority of an office with me which represents something bigger than me. When I love a patient and show them care and listen to them and pray with them, they experience more than my love, but God’s. If that is not the ministry of Word and Sacrament, I don’t know what is. Just because our table is a therapy room does not mean we are not a community of believers and humans gathered in the name of Christ. It’s time that this organization begin to recognize that the church begins in the world—in classrooms, in firehouses, in hospitals, in parks, in libraries, prisons, malls and shelters! The church begins in the world and gathers in the parish, and those of us who minister to those who have not yet made it into congregations (or are barred by their circumstances at the moment) are also called to this office and should be given the same authority and responsibility as those whose calls are in the gathering places known as churches.
I ask you to consider a resolution to recognize chaplaincy and community-based ministry as part of the office of ordination and remove the three to five year requirement of parish ministry for ordination. Our world is full of so much need, and there are people bursting at the seams to usher in God’s kingdom in innovative, non-traditional ways. We have been seeing for years that the model of the church is changing, declining, becoming obsolete to the younger generations (et cetera), so isn’t it about time we think about making some changes ourselves so that we can best serve God’s amazing, beautiful, broken world? We who don’t fit the traditional model have so much to offer to this church and to these people, so please help us find a way to do that which includes us in the roster of ordained ministers of the ELCA.
Peace and blessings in the name of Christ,

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Life of the Imagination

A response to Mary Oliver’s “Spring Azures

The “life of the imagination” can go two ways, like divergent paths; both attempts at righteousness. One way seeks escape—a turning away from what is. To not see the pain and dirt and loss around, but instead to focus on what I want, what I need. This path seems holy, at a glance—perhaps like living in a city on a hill—but in the end this imagination abandons both now and not yet for elsewhere entirely.

But then there is the imagination which turns toward. It is a path which goes not around but through. It is to stand in the midst of personal striving and polluting factories, and to see beyond; looking not at what is but what can be, as if we can cultivate this present reality with love like a great Gardener. Then we imagine in order to make real, and find strength and beauty both in the world and ourselves.

For it is the power of the dreamer to transform night into day.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Gratitude is to Delight

Gratitude is to delight
in simple things
like the juice of a sweet peach
dripping down your chin.

Gratitude is to look
upon all you have before you
and not ask for more, or take
more than what you need.

Gratitude is to see with childlike eyes
the newness of everything;
the surprises life brings.

Gratitude is a dog
lying in the sun with no expectation
that it should shine for him.

Grief overtakes gratitude from time to time,
and forgetting who we are
can make it hard to delight.
But like a gift which reveals itself again and again
we are provided opportunity for
gratitude each day.

When burdened and hurt,
try to delight in what is before you,
but also know that gratitude is sometimes simply
about remembering the last breath you took.

Copyright, G. Powell, 2015

Friday, April 3, 2015

Why is Good Friday "Good"?

A friend of mine told me about somebody on her Facebook feed who was saying that she didn't like the name of "Good" Friday because she thinks that it would be more accurate to call it a crappy Friday given that Jesus died. It's definitely a sad Friday, and unfortunately certain "soteriologies" or theories about how salvation works, seem to tell us that Jesus' sins were substituted for our own and that all of the sins we've not even committed yet were responsible for slaying our savior. This theology doesn't lend itself to the healthiest of relationships with God or with ourselves!

When we say Jesus "died for our sins" what does that mean? Well, to understand that, you have to think a little bit about what sin actually is. If you think sin is each individual breaking of the Ten Commandments or the 'love one another' command of Jesus, then it makes sense that you might conclude that Jesus was "substituted" to bear our individual failings by proxy.  But this is an incomplete description of what's wrong in the world. After all, can an unborn baby "sin" in its mother's womb and cause it to be miscarried? Is God really so petty that God would punish a mother by killing her child? I don't think so. I think that this definition of sin misses the complexity, both of sin and subsequently God's response to it.

Did you ever ask yourself why Jesus specifically had to DIE in order to be punished enough? I mean, crucifixion, as punishments go, is about the most brutal one humanly possible. Surely being flogged, beaten, dragging a heavy cross, having nails driven through your hands and feet, and slowly asphyxiating while hanging for hours were a steep cost for our every petty dirty thought or whatever. It didn't just take any random guy from the street of Jerusalem to die, it took the son of God, the incarnation of God's vastness in finite human form. Why? Did God really need to make a point by murdering his son instead of just forgiving everybody? I think not.

But think about what it would mean if God created the earth and somehow because of our rebellious actions created a crack in reality that let death seep inside. What if our knowing and free will and ability to turn from God disrupted the harmony of the garden so that instead of simply tending the garden with pleasure all our days, we die. And not only that, but we die in horrible ways, in accidents and natural disasters and of ugly diseases. And we die way too young, as babies or children or young mothers. And we die alone, lonely, unknowing our worth, depressed and anxious and afraid. What if the things we do that hurt each other directly like breaking the Ten Commandments are the consequences of the deeper evil that came into our world, telling us lies about who we are, about our need to acquire goods and about what power means? What then, is sin, but a systematic brokenness that has affected every single molecule in this universe.

Then Jesus becomes a much more complicated answer. No longer is Jesus just lying down for that time you yelled at your sister and the lie you told to your boss when you were hungover and didn't want to come to work. Now Jesus is a supernatural warrior coming to defeat death and all its many consequences in the only way that death can be defeated: by dying and then not being dead after. Now we have a hero who boldly faces what all of us tremble before, the thing that drives us to hurt each other and steal, which tells us that real power means having the most or using people up. Now we have a hero whose death isn't mere substitution but a fundamental attack on the wicked forces which entrap us and drive us to injure one another in body, mind, and spirit. Now we have love so amazing, so divine, that not only took my sins but my death and my suffering and my fear and doubt and addiction and grief and loneliness and chronic pain and sexual assault and purposeless existence and with his great magic and might transformed those things into life, love, light, health, wholeness, community, healing, joy, gratitude, and vocation.

Jesus is the song of victory over not just something as small as individual sins but over every single failure and hurt and pain that has ever existed and ever will exist. Good Friday is good because we are not remembering "Good" Friday as a way to feel guilty for our sin, but because we stand in awe at the foot of the cross for a God whose power is so amazing that s/he became one of us and defeated all evil and buried it forever, planting in its tomb seeds of life. It's "good" because we go to Friday bearing the cross of our humanity and our grief and everything that has ever hurt us or another person, and we lay it down there because we "do not grieve as those who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13) but as those going to a tomb on Sunday morning which we know will be empty!

Good Friday is a hard day. It's a sad day. Today I prayed for all my patients that they may be healed of their hurts and find their purpose, and my heart was heavy with their sorrows and the sorrows of the world. But I take my burdens to the cross because the cross of Christ is strong enough to hold them all, and point me to the message that on Easter morning the lilies will bloom over the frozen earth of our despair, and that we will one day have Easter morning every morning, every second of every day, and love will flood our world as bold and warm as the light of the sun. That is the "good"est news I can think of, so yeah, I think it's a good, Good Friday. Let the ground at Calvary hold your tears until they bloom into a field of joy when Easter comes. Amen.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Remembering How to Hope

I've been thinking a lot lately about that complicated mix of emotions that the lent season elicits in me. As I wrote in a post a while back, lent is the time of year during which we reflect on our mortality, our sins, and the journey toward the cross. But unlike those first followers of Christ who found themselves lost and confused by the cross, we can see the cross as a symbol of triumph. Knowing that the grave leads to new life in that story gives can make it be hard to feel "properly penitential" (as I like to think of it) during these weeks. After all, why should we waste time holding these feelings of loss or guilt or darkness when we know that love wins in the end?

The answer lies, as usual, in the hospital. I'm partly kidding, but I think that the hospital is a great metaphor for life. When IV bags and needles are not just plastic and metal but a means of literal salvation, it starts to feel a little more meaningful; a little more sacred.  This week marks six months at my hospital, and I am transitioning from my ICU and med-surg units to behavioral health units on the other campus across the river. Naturally, moving into a new rotation as I am this week is bringing up a mix of emotions that I can't help relating to our lenten journey. It feels strange.

Like graduating from high school, there is this tingly mix of nerves and grief because of saying goodbye and desire for adventure and hope for what might come. I was showing my replacement around my former units this morning, and while I was bouncing a little with excitement for the coming months, I was also realizing that in introducing her to my colleagues there that I was saying goodbye to them at the same time. What an apt metaphor for life, whereby new things almost never come without the end of something else. We move away to college waving farewell to high school friends, and we welcome new babies while the first years of childless marriage fade into a distant memory. Even a divorce from the worst of partners can be bittersweet as new-found freedom and healing come at the cost of familiarity and intimacy. As my dad would say, life is hard.

One of our extended unit interns, Allen Blegen, was working on some things for his own education process, and asked me to take a look at his theological statement of ministry while we were hanging out in the office. What he wrote resonated with me deeply, because he wrote about the "now" of our troubles and the "not yet" we are called to encounter and help others encounter through our lives, love, and ministries. He said: “A person without hope loses the will to live or the ability to envision a future story. Physically, he or she is grounded in the present. One’s body is stuck in the world around him or her and must live moment by moment. However, emotionally and spiritually we all can break out of the present and grow into the future. We can dream, we can imagine tomorrow, we can envision a future and most importantly we can hope that that future will be fulfilling and have meaning.”

His words encapsulated what I have been feeling this last couple weeks with my transition. Both rooted here (on the unit) and there, on planning and making myself ready for the next step. And then I imagined how much harder it would be if, like some of my colleagues, I was not excited for the next step, or even if I were apprehensive of it. We often get through hard stuff because of the reminder that things are going to be okay eventually. Just a few more months of a crappy job, or just another day until Friday. But when we lose our new venture or weekend, what do we have? Sometimes the hand we're dealt is not a pleasant one and it will not be okay tomorrow. My husband grieves as his home country is invaded and the world watches silently. It's not okay now, and it's not okay tomorrow. But hope is the thing that calls you forward one step at a time knowing that a future that is not possible right now will be possible by the power of Christ Jesus. That is the power of our lenten journey. It is walking in the uncertain with faith that even when it's not okay (and often it's not okay), Christ is doing a new thing. It is grieving for loss, holding onto the power of love that transcends death. It is being held up in hope by the community of believers when you have not a single ounce of it remaining. It is living into our darkness with honor and respect for the light that it reveals.

In the end, I'm realizing that lent is not about being "properly penitential" but rather it is about holding the despair and deaths we encounter in a holy place, savoring the very human mix of death and new life so that we may always move through every change, loss, gift, challenge, or growth with the integrity of hope surrounding us and guiding each step. Life is hard. It has been hard since death first touched the face of the world, and it will continue to be hard as we encounter unexpected trials, loss, failure, and change. But I think that lent can remind us that in the same way that we look toward the resurrection on this journey toward the cross, that we can look toward our future with imagination and hope, even if all we see around us are ashes. Blessings to you on your lenten journey. Amen.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ashes for a Boy

I visited a young man on the ICU, 23 years old,
to offer ashes yesterday.
His mother, teary yet unwilling to talk to me,
Nonetheless agreed for me to give her little boy with cancer this mark of his mortality.
The young man could understand but could make no reply.
I approached him and explained what I would do,
and when I touched his brow with the dusty blackness of death,
tears fell from his eyes.
It occurred to me how little I understood of him and his pain, or his mother's;
indeed how little we know of anyone.
And yet we are all here together bound up in this mortal cloak,
hoping to one day be wrapped again in life.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Freedom (of Speech) of a Christian

A handful of years ago, a new chancellor came to power in a European nation. His election followed a politically tumultuous time, and many people were excited about his promises of prosperity and justice in a country that had seen its fair share of conflict and economic problems. Two days following this election, a young nobleman took to the airwaves to share his opinion about this election, which was less than supportive of the new regime. His broadcast was cut off partway through, and he was not allowed to speak his piece. Later, as it became more and more obvious to him that this leader was bad for the people, he began to publish writings protesting him, and meet with groups of people who were of like mind. Frustrated with the lack of response, he left his home country for a while, but continued to see the plight of his people and eventually returned. Upon his return, he was not allowed to speak in public, because he was known to be spreading subversive messages by the government. He was a troublemaker. Finally, ten years after his first radio broadcast, the young dissident was arrested, though he continued to write and communicate with these underground groups in prison. Two years later, he was hanged.

If you know much about 20th century church history, you probably realized that the young dissident was none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose tireless efforts to create a strong church body to resist the Nazi regime resulted in his death just days before the end of the Second World War. If you’ve been following the news from France in recent days, you have seen the debates about free speech/press and the many media outlets which are trying very hard not to lay blame on Charlie Hebdo while conceding that, yes, they probably did bear some responsibility for this incident. Charlie Hebdo is known for publishing outrageous religious and political satire, some of which takes a very offensive tone particularly to Muslims (though they published things about a variety of religions). This is seen as justification, by some, for the actions of extremists. However, as one author put it, allowing blame for this incident to be placed on the victims of this massacre allows Sharia law to reign. In other words, being silenced by terrorism, no matter how unpalatable you may find the content being censored, sends the message that it’s okay to use violence to silence voices you disagree with, the same way the Nazi party used silence to create an apathetic nation that allowed millions of Jews to be slaughtered.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the fears some people have about this triggering Islamaphobia. Those fears might be legitimate, especially given the hysteria that tends to follow terrorist actions. But despite those fears, this issue is not, in fact, about Islam. Muslims all around the world manage to peacefully practice their religion in secular nations that would never dream of allowing a minority group to impose their religious beliefs on other people. These people practice a faith of love and submission to God’s will, and most of them are wonderful, kind people, like Lassana Bathily who saved several people during the shooting spree by hiding people in the freezer of the kosher market where he works. The religion practiced by the alleged shooters is no more similar to true Islam than the Westboro Baptist Church is to mainline Christianity. This is a fact that has been pointed out quite vehemently in every story that I have seen on the topic. Some people may be conflating Islam and terrorism, but the vast majority of the world understands that there is a difference between a fanatic and a faithful person. 

This is not just a freedom of speech issue, as it has been framed in the media. That is part of this, but it’s a problem that is further reaching than just free speech. It’s about freedom in general, and mostly it’s about justice. Regardless of whether to agree with a message, protecting the right to say it protects everybody who dares to speak out against injustice. Countless people were taken away to be re-educated during the first five decades of Communism in China and Russia. These were people who dared speak out, maybe only to their immediate family members or friends, and were found to be a threat to the power of the state. The first abolitionists who spoke out against slavery spoke a message very contrary to the powers that be, but they spoke it courageously at sometimes great personal cost. Martin Luther King Jr. utilized free speech and civil disobedience as a way to sway a public opinion vastly different from his own, and despite being imprisoned for that civil disobedience, he continued writing letters that turned out to be quite influential. It is vital to the freedom of societies and to those not in power that this right be defended. Living in the US or other free nations has spoiled us: we have forgotten how dangerous it is to be silenced.

The situation in France is different from the United States; there are legitimate concerns about the rise of extremist Islam. These people want to force others to live according to Sharia law, to punish people who offend their religious sensibilities. I find it surprising that the same people who defend the right of Satanists to erect statues of the devil in public areas as an ironic protest of the overreach of Christianity in the US government are opposed to political satire that points to a very real problem. This problem is bad not just for secular or Christian French people, but also for the millions of peaceful Muslims who want to live their lives without the imposition of extremism in their lives. Justice doesn’t happen if laws from one religion are applied unilaterally to everybody—we live under a common moral law rather than a religious law for exactly this reason. This is a lesson we are still learning in the United States, but we are trying very hard (as witnessed by the recent wave of challenges to and victories over the bans on same sex marriage around the country). Extremism is responsible for the suffering of millions of people, from Hamas’ unwillingness to negotiate to Boko Haram’s kidnapping and sacking of villages to Afghani and other middle eastern leaders that persecute less extremist Muslims, Christians, and everybody in between. Extremism is dangerous business in any religion, and it’s irresponsible to frame this as an Islam issue when it is an extremism issue. You can be sympathetic to our Muslim brothers and sisters and still defend the right of twelve people not to be brutally murdered for daring to differ in opinion.

Yes, we should pray for those who committed these atrocious acts. Yes, we should understand that they, like us, are flawed and broken humans misled into acts of violence by their probably earnest desire to obey their religion to the letter. Yes, we should most certainly recognize that Islam is on the whole a peaceful religion filled with peace-loving people. But I believe our call as Christians is to seek justice for all people and to call out those who are threatening it. The staff at Charlie Hebdo had a grave injustice committed against them, and the people of France face the threat of injustice both from extremism and from the xenophobic far-right groups gaining popularity in response to it. I cannot, in good conscious, give anything but condemnation to the actions of these people who chose to respond to words with murder.

I hesitated writing about this issue, to be honest. I thought to myself “do I want to make this blog a political platform?” and the answer to that question is... yes. I don’t want this blog to be a place where I tell you what your political beliefs should be, or who to vote for. However, in the same way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work in forming the confessing church and resisting Nazi rule could not be separated from his theology, so are we people who must live in a political world based on our beliefs. But if I preach that I stand for justice and peace and yet stay silent in the face of what I see as injustice, I am a hypocrite. Maybe you have a different view on what is just and what is not. That’s okay. If you’re reading this, you’re probably lucky enough to live in a country where you are free to disagree with what I write here without threat of bodily harm or political repercussions, and who am I to argue with that? But I hope that you will consider that the freedom to “speak truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is the freedom to enact justice, sometimes subversively, sometimes outrageously, sometimes even offensively, and that it is a right we as Christians ought to take very, very seriously, lest we forget the cost of our freedom, both political and Christian.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

When Grace Hurts

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” -Ephesians 2:1-5a

Despite my innocent appearance and the well known saying about how clean preachers are supposed to be, I can be kind of a jerk. You should see me in bad traffic. We all can be at times, and unfortunately, the closer we are, the more likely I am to be a jerk to you. My husband can certainly attest to this; I’m a real grump before I’ve had my coffee. A couple days ago, I groused at him endlessly before food and caffeine had made their way into my blood stream, and like the amazing, sweet guy he is, he let it go. Later, he groused at me in a similar fashion because he was very tired, and I got unreasonably mad. It wasn’t until he was hugging me with love and forgiveness that I really realized what a jerk I had been. The grace that should have made me feel better actually made me feel worse in that moment, because it so fully convicted me of my wrongness.

This is something that I’m sure you have experienced at least once with a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor. There doesn’t even have to be a huge fight over it. You might snap at somebody and find they are apologizing to you for it, and suddenly you feel like the world’s biggest asshole. Grace is a funny thing that way. I know I’m guilty of this too: talking about grace as if it is an amazing, magical thing that cures everything. Why are we still acting the way we act? Don’t you know the good news of God’s love for you? But grace isn’t always a happy thing. Sometimes it’s a reminder that we have screwed up, and bad, and sometimes it surfaces all of that shame about our worth that we work so hard to hide.

Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting. You know the one, where Will’s therapist has been working with him for weeks on breaking down his defenses, and suddenly starts telling Will that the abuse he endured as a child isn’t his fault? It’s funny how he reacts to a statement that absolves him of his guilt for his inability to be vulnerable: he defends himself. He pulls away, backs up, actually swings at his therapist in an attempt to make him stop “attacking” with the words “It’s not your fault.”

There’s something really visceral about this scene, which is brought wonderfully to life by two great actors, but I think it truly hits us because most of us know how this feels. Even if you don’t know the context of the movie, you can still see the rawness of the shame and pain that this absolution dredges up for Matt Damon’s character. That’s because when we are told we are good and holy and beloved, it comes directly into conflict with all of the bad things we believe about ourselves. We are so full of shame sometimes that we don’t even realize it. I’ve written on this before, but we often spend our lives defending ourselves against the ‘not enoughs’ that are thrown at us. You’re not beautiful enough, thin enough, smart enough, talented enough, wise enough, important enough. We build up walls around that to protect ourselves. “I know I’m smart enough! How dare anybody suggest otherwise?” The crux is that when we finally hear the opposite, that we are good or smart or worthy or lovely, we don’t truly believe it. We may have everybody else fooled, but we know that deep down we just don’t buy it, and hearing “God loves you” when you think you’re a worthless sack of crap only makes you confront those feelings and fears about who you are.

Once when I was in graduate school, my first advisor in my long-ago psychology program told me that I needed to stop being so self-deprecating because I wouldn’t be here if the school didn’t think I was smart and able. I ran out of his office crying, and switched advisors a few days later, and until recently I couldn’t have told you why. I thought it was because he had embarrassed me by calling me out, and I said it was just a personality clash, but in retrospect it was because he was saying to me that I was smart and worthwhile, and that hit me deeply because I knew that in my heart of hearts I didn’t agree. It’s the same when you find yourself unexpectedly met with the graciousness of friends or family giving you money when you’re broke, or giving you forgiveness after you get drunk and start a fight about gun control at the holiday dinner table. Unconditional love challenges our very fragile sense of conditional worth.

I decided to write about this topic for two reasons. The first is that I think we often find it baffling when people refuse our overtures of love and care. Maybe there is a person you’ve been trying to love back to life who just doesn’t get it, who keeps on engaging in risky behavior or doing irresponsible things or continues to be way too hard on themselves. Sometimes you just want to scream: “WHY DON’T YOU ACCEPT MY GRACE DAMN IT?!” But I want to encourage you to be patient with those around you who just seem to never get it. I’m not saying that you should ever stay in abusive or dangerous relationships, but you never know how the love you give to those who are hurting, alone, or lost might surge back to them when their hearts are more receptive to receiving it. Understand that your love and care can be a painful thing for them. Love them anyway, in whatever ways they can accept, and slowly their hurts will be healed by grace. Give it time.

Secondly, I’m writing this for you. All of us have places where we don’t feel like we are enough. Maybe you think you aren’t a good enough provider for your family, or aren’t an active enough mom for your kids. Maybe you think you are working crap jobs and that reflects somehow on your worth. Maybe you were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused and you secretly think you must have somehow invited it. In your head you know those are lies, but I know that in moments of weakness your heart sometimes disagrees. For you I write: be loved. Because regardless of what that voice says, you are beloved. Carry on through the pain of confronting those beliefs. Talk to that voice inside your head with strength and courage and tell it: “I am enough.” Take it out of your head and imagine someone saying those things to your best friend, spouse, or child. Would you let somebody say: “Boy, you’re really stupid and worthless” to your best friend? Then don’t let you say it to you. Hear the words I’m writing for you today and hold them close when that voice comes to you. Grace is hard work sometimes; not getting it, but accepting it. But God’s love is a powerful thing that can and does heal our shame, and it is and has always been for you.