Saturday, August 19, 2017

Moana and Hearing the Call of the Broken

Once we were voyagers, brave adventurers forging ahead to new lands, to explore unknown lands and meet unknown people. To follow the call to meet new people, washing them with healing waters and teaching them who we were once meant to be.

This could be the beginning of the story of Moana, or almost. That story begins with a young woman who lives in a safe little island community but who from a young age is called beyond the shores of her safe land to new places, to a mission greater than leading the familiar faces and solving the familiar, daily problems of those around her. This is also the beginning of the story of a church, who began by baptizing people, all people, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And somehow ended up in a very different place.

For me the last seven years have been full of ups and downs, of self discovery, frustration, joy, pain, and just about everything in between. I came to this journey toward ministry with a path set before me to do as others have done, but in my heart have always felt a different call and a different path, not one full of pews and hymns, but full of blood and guts and fist fights and kids throwing things at my head some days. One could say I've felt a call to adventure.

I was watching Moana last night for the second time, and it hit me what a wonderful metaphor for the church it is. Moana's people were once adventurers, until they found their safe island Motunui, and then somehow they stopped exploring. Soon their lives became about preserving the little haven they had created. It was lovely, and life giving for many, but it was also dying. Because outside of their little paradise the world was dying. But Moana's father, the village chief, was scared of what might happen if she followed the call of the ocean and the call of her heart, and forbade her from leaving. After her grandmother became deathly ill, in her grief she fled to a secret place and discovered that her people had once been explorers of the ocean. Reassured that this voice inside her was not insanity but a deeper call to her true identity, she escapes Motunui to restore the heart of Ta Fiti, the goddess whose heart was stolen long ago by the demigod Maui.

The heart of the world is broken, and it's no longer something we can address only within the walls of our churches. That's not to say that the broken aren't within our churches, but like Motunui, the church, too, is dying. An old, clunky, irrelevant institution struggling to demand its inhabitants stay on the island is nonetheless bleeding members, closing doors, and soon will die as well. The world is out there, beyond the reef, and demanding that leaders stay and grow coconuts on a dying island isn't how to solve the problem. This only delays the inevitable. Moana strikes out and in so doing finds herself, singing "Who am I? I am a girl who loves my island, I am a girl who loves the sea, it calls me..."

And in remembering her name, Moana is empowered to help the goddess Ta Fiti remember who she is, to heal her broken heart and ultimately heal the world.

Ironically, it was in leaving her safe little world for unknown danger that she saved the world and  herself, because so much about our suffering is about how we have forgotten who we are. We are not the sum of where we live, or our church buildings, or the things that have happened to us, though those things shape us. We are not our failures or our trauma, and we are not what others have said we are or what we can be. We are not defined by the lack of imagination of old, boring people who would put us in boxes, and we are not the the stories others have told about us. This does not define you: you know who you are.

Who is that? The daughter or son of the most high, child of the one who created everything. You are beloved. And if you can remember that you can stop being so scared of losing your safe island, and you can stop being scared of those hurts and scars, and if you can remember that, you can stop being scared of not getting the attention or respect of the people you think you need it from, and if you can remember that everything changes.

So remember. This does not define you, church. This does not define you, broken one. This does not define you, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother. This does not define you, criminal, hated or victim. This does not define you.

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.

-Isaiah 43:1

Monday, July 24, 2017

Addiction, Bondage, and Affliction

This past week, myself and many of my peers were shocked by the news that rock legend Chester Bennington, singer for Linkin Park, ended his life by suicide at the age of 41. It's always so hard to see talented people in the prime of their lives take dramatic measures, but particularly given his long struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism there is an especially bitter edge. In my work, I frequently walk with young people dealing with the same issues. The day after I found out about Bennington's death, I was talking to a 19 year old young man and the way he described his addiction as a conflict between the love in his heart and his mind's desire for a high reminded me strongly of Paul's passage in Romans 7: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me." This passage is a classic description of what Martin Luther would describe as the bound will. Luther would say that the idea that our will is free is laughable, because if it were free, would we not, knowing better, choose to do the right thing all the time? But our will is clearly not free, because again and again we choose to do things that hurt ourselves and others? We choose the addiction. We choose to take advantage of others. We choose greed, selfish ambition, lust, and more. Like Bennington and this young man, in many of us this creates a painful sense of shame and self-loathing. Why do we do that which we hate? Why can we not do what we want? How can we receive God's love when we fail fail fail fail?

I have never personally struggled with addiction, but I have felt the weight of the law or some version of it my whole life. Because I so often failed to live up to society's measures of me as a woman, being too fat or too ugly or too girly or not girly enough too dumb or too smart or too opinionated or not opinionated enough or too prudish or not prudish enough that the idea that I could freely be a recipient of God's grace was hard to come by for me. It wasn't that I didn't understand it intellectually, but somehow in spite of hearing "God loves you" over and over, this message somehow failed to really sink into me. Even now when I know my salvation is assured, I frequently find myself needing the gospel declared to me. Most often I find this in the liturgy, when I confess my sins and the forgiveness of Christ is declared to me, and when I take holy communion and hear that it was given for me. Because the people that I work with are so often broken in many ways, I usually feel like what it means to hear the gospel is to have our worthiness declared. This is a very Lutheran thing, probably because Luther himself was kind of a neurotic who usually felt himself unworthy and his biblical study is what led him to understand this doctrine of salvation by grace.

On Sunday my husband and I went to check out a new church. There were many lovely things about it, and I can see it becoming my church home in the future, but my husband immediately pointed to the sermon as a central piece of importance for him. Ironically, I had found the sermon to be about the least useful thing to me in it, because it had been primarily about teaching. Lately, I have not been feeling very worthy. Left out in the cold by my denomination, struggling to feel loved and wanted and worthy as a person, I needed a declaration of belovedness, and I didn't get that there. I received it through the beautiful music, and the forgiveness of sins, and the eucharist, and the warm welcome of the people there. It was a fine sermon, it was just peas when I really needed potatoes. But after some discussion, I realized that it had not occurred to me that not everyone walked around feeling broken all the time like me and my patients. Part of me had always assumed that to be the case, or that if people were saying they weren't broken then they were probably lying about the places where they hurt. 

But then I thought about the story of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). In the story, a young man demands his inheritance and after squandering it on partying and irresponsible living, crawls back to his father who then greets him with open arms and joyful tears. Meanwhile, his older brother who was with his father working hard the whole time gets mad at his father for throwing the irresponsible younger son a big party. Rather than telling the older son that he was right, that he should also get a big party for always being right and doing the right thing, he reminds him that the reward was being with him the whole time, and that a lost child's return should always be celebrated. I always imagine the look of shame on the older brother's face at the father's words. Who could really argue with a father's joyful relief? The older brother serves as the perfect illustration for the "unbroken" among us. Some people never left the father, or never questioned their birth right. For my husband, the gospel for him is often hearing a word that helps him to live his life better within the assurance of his salvation that he already has, a gospel like Jesus' teaching which directs feet and shapes lives, "Because you are made worthy, here is how to walk with me.." For me and those who struggle to believe that worthiness again and again, that word is simply: "You are loved."

So for me as a preacher, the question becomes how to declare it? That's hard for me, because I think the beginning and ending always needs to be 'blessed assurance.' But I know I often forget that the law serves a function too, to drive us to the cross and guide us to live in community together, and the as Bonhoeffer would say, resurrection without the cross is cheap and gospel without the law is incomplete. There is a saying about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and I think that's pretty apt here. The gospel is not a single thing which speaks a single word, but is a massive, transformative, changing, living thing which speaks many words at many times. We so often see the pharisees as the butt of the joke in the stories of Jesus, but what if the pharisees and sadducees are also recipients of a different kind of gospel? What if, like the rich young man who goes to Jesus and asks how to be perfect, the gospel sometimes means being told that we are too comfortable and in order to truly follow we need to get a little bit uncomfortable too? You are worthy, and also as a recipient of this worthiness how are you being transformed? Maybe the gospel looks like giving your time or money in a way that pinches you a little more than you might like? Maybe it means getting up close and personal with the reality of police brutality or poverty? Maybe it means giving something up that you want for the sake of your spouse and marriage? Maybe it means devoting more time to God and family and less time to pleasure and work? How is God afflicting you? Because despite the reality that many of us are broken, and many of us are surely broken, many of us are simultaneously infected with complacency and comfort and God also calls us to be the church, to usher in the kingdom, and to lose our lives. Not to addiction or depression as Chester Bennington did, but to lose our lives to that which keeps us from being servants to our husbands and wives, children and parents, friends and neighbors, and all the world. You are loved. And because you are worthy, and because you are important, you are also called to grow, to learn, and to follow.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Broken Pieces: A Reflection on Grief

This piece was originally written for the Intranet Blog at Fairview Health Services, but I thought it might serve as a reminder to those who are carrying grief as caregivers or loved ones that you are not alone. We honor your pain.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comfored." -Matthew 5:4

When I was a girl I had a doll. My parents told me that on Christmas morning my little feet scampered into the living room where she sat under the tree, and I shyly asked my mom, “Mama, who is that dolly for?” I very creatively named her Gwendolly, and she got appropriately beaten as I dragged her everywhere with me from the age of three until her untimely demise. When I was seven, my parents took in two abused dogs, one whose horrible abuse left her blind in one eye, with an at-home docked tail. The other had not been as physically tormented, but was behaviorally just as bad. A friend of my mom's had seen them tied outside in the hot Kansas summer one too many days before finally spiriting them away in the night and begging my parents to take them in (as we lived far enough away for the owners to not come looking). They were awful. They destroyed everything, and had to be confined when we were away because they peed and pooped on everything. One Sunday morning, we left them enclosed in a room to go to church, and when we returned we found that they had tunneled through a wall out a closet and right into my bedroom, where they destroyed most of my favorite toys. Among the casualties was Gwendolly. I was crushed. My mom promised she could fix Gwendolly, and packed her away in a Price Chopper grocery bag with words of assurance that someday Gwendolly would be okay again.

Although this is perhaps a silly example, this story has come to my mind as I have found myself in the middle of several weeks of irreparable tragedy. The week began with a difficult on-call visit, where I ministered to family of a dying child, and the staff who were trying desperately to make it better for them. I then received a slew of bad news from friends and family members that left me reeling and struggling with how to care for those directly affected, and for my own feelings as well. I have spent some time attempting to wrap words around the depth of grief and pain that these experiences have awakened in me, not because these losses are my losses, but because private and communal tragedy raise such complex questions and emotions and I am left feeling like a child trying to understand senselessness and compassion and hope with a mind too frail to grasp it all. Being a caregiver is very much akin to this at times. Walking with patients and families through illness and death, though a gift, has unique challenges. It raises questions of cosmic justice and purpose, it can incite anger and remind us of our own trauma, and it raises our own fears in the midst of our pain for another. We not only hold our friends and patients when they grieve, but we wonder if we could be next; if their pain could be our pain, or when it will be.

And I think of my tattered and destroyed doll, and I think that even then I knew she couldn't be repaired. There is no healing from the digested destruction of canine teeth. Maybe she could have been some kind of Frankenstein's monster doll, but she wouldn't have been mine. And nothing can replace the children who are lost, and nothing can fill the holes which are left when the families of our patients leave the hospital with a teddy bear, or an old coat, or a wedding ring. And what of our hearts as we watch the tattered remains of lives moving in and out of our walls day after day? My heart was tired this week, and I suspect your heart has been tired at times. I have seen the weary faces of doctors, nurses, therapists, radiology technicians, psych associates, and more. We gather up remains of lives in our hearts, like my mom's grocery bag. And what to do with these things?

I like the biblical image of humans as “clay jars” because it adequately communicates our frailty, and something about how serendipitous our lives can be. My purpose in writing this is not to offer a nugget of wisdom for how to move beyond grief and let go of those stories which touch us, but instead to honor the broken pieces which we have lovingly gathered up into our arms and hearts. I don't think this is quite about hope, because I always have hope, and I grip it with fingers that are sometimes raw and bleeding from sheer determination as life and death pull me further from it. But even with hope in the palms of our hands, we are still carrying the heavy things.

Right now, as I grieve with my friends and co-workers, I am trying to put these things in a safe place. Not to abandon them, or forget them, but to entrust them to something bigger than me, whether that be God, the universe, the community, or something else entirely, because not one of us can bear such heartbreak alone. Like a seven year old nodding while her mom carefully places the bag on the upper shelf of her bedroom closet and gently reassures her that things will be okay, we must in time learn to lay these pieces to rest, trusting that somehow, someday, we, and the lost, and the ones who grieve will be whole again. But in the meantime, we honor the shards, and we weep over them, and we let our hearts be broken for a while.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Matthew 25:41-43 for Trump's America

"I was hungry and you told me to get a job. I was thirsty and you told me lead is good for me. I was a stranger and you built a wall. I was wearing a short skirt and you said I was asking for it. I was sick and you took away my healthcare. I was in prison and you took away my humanity..." 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do Not Grow Weary

"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children." -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Washington, D.C., August 1963

"Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all." -Galatians 6:7-10a

How relevant that today we reflect on the progress we have made since this day over 50 years ago, as well as all the many ways we have not progressed. How important to notice that injustice is not tied only to skin color, but sexual orientation, gender expression, and disability. How appropriate that this inaugural month that we notice those among us who still struggle to be recognized as truly one of God's children. And how appropriate that we should say 'not good enough' and fight on, not waiting on time or the whims of those in power, but pressing forward, demanding and creating justice in our communities regardless of those in power who say 'good enough.' This is how we bring about God's promised kingdom where lion and lamb feed side by side, where we dwell together in the city where the river of God that flows from the throne waters the trees which are a healing balm for our pain and hate and divide. Do not grow weary; the journey is long, but we go together.