Monday, June 01, 2020

Body Language

cirque du soleil acrobat

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Friends! Not only do you get me preaching twice in a row, you once again get Paul talking body talk. Paul really does love the God-bod image. This time though, the body talk is in service of how each of the parts work together, how the community of Christ engages and interacts “For the common good” (as Paul puts it).

This is a Pentecost text because it is about the fullness of the Spirit’s action in the new church. The Spirit is actively filling the members of the church - at Corinth and in every place and time - with gifts to be “activated” in service of the church (and I would say also the world - but that’s me not Paul.) The gifts work together the way a body works together. And they can also work against each other.

When I was seeing a Quaker Spiritual director - someone steeped in the way of presence in Spirit - I was helped to see the spiritual gifts as innate. Our gifts are so a part of ourselves that our gifts become almost our native language. Like language and culture, we might more highly value our own than that of others because we can’t understand it. In addition, when we can’t understand someone else’s gift we may feel it unnecessary. That lack of understanding can be the cause of conflict and misunderstanding.

Language of Enneagram is not a language that I speak but I suspect that those of you who do may be able to translate this to type. I do not know that way of engaging in giftedness but i do have a little bit of insight into love languages. The idea of “Love Languages” was developed by psychologist Gary Chapman and I was introduced to it in couples counseling as a way to help my spouse and me to understand each other and communicate. Each of us has a different “Love language”: Words of affirmation, physical touch, receiving gifts, quality time, acts of service. When we’re “spoken to” in that language we feel loved and connected to our partner.

For example, my primary love language is “acts of service” but my spouse’s is words of affirmation. So we often talk past each other when trying to express our love and appreciation. I’m looking for someone to do the dishes after dinner - that says love to me. I don’t necessarily hear “I love you” in the expressions of gratitude and affirmation for a delicious meal. But also because words of affirmation are not my love language - I forget to articulate my own appreciation and encouragement and gratitude, which is how my spouse feels loved.

This is the passage that leads into the loooove passage to the Corinthians. The one we heard a few weeks ago. Even though we’re not hearing them in order, it seem right that this should be the first step. Before we can learn to love each other - need to speak each other's language - or at least have an appreciation for that language. Someone who does not speak the spiritual gift of prophecy, might find that gift to the church annoying or distracting or troublemaking. But prophecy - the telling of truth to power and naming injustice pushes the church body to be more Christ-like. The body will communicate between its members more fluidly if the hand is learning the language of the eye.

Many years ago I saw a Cirque du Soleil show in which I spent almost all of the show with my mouth agape and gasping in awe at the way the acrobats and dancers engaged their whole bodies in the performance - and at how their bodies worked in concert with each other. Even the musicians and the clowns. There was no part that was not used with intention and beauty and strength and grace. But it takes a lot of training and practice for one of those acrobats to be able to do that - for anyone who is an elite athlete to be able to make their body work in the way that it does. It takes practice for the Body of Christ as well.

This isn’t the usual Pentecost passage. We’re used to focusing on the rush of wind and the tongues of flame. On the crowd, which through the power of the Spirit can understand their kindred from all nations. Here we see that the Spirit continues to give language and the understanding of languages to the church. Paul is extending that into metaphor, in a way. It’s not just gifts that are being doled out, it’s Spiritual gifts. And all the Spirit’s gifts are good, resources that are for the good of the whole body. May we seek to listen for and to understand the language of the Spirit - and in so doing may we strengthen the body.
Turns out I wrote a sermon this week that I didn't end up using because the Spirit called me in a different direction (more on that in a later post, perhaps).  But here's the text of the sermon that would have been...

Monday, May 25, 2020

Why Bodies Matter to God

1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 51-57

When I read texts like this, I remember why I do not gravitate to Paul and why I stay away from the epistles generally. I’d rather stick with Jesus. It’s a struggle sometimes, but What Would Jesus Do? works a lot better for me than What Would Paul Say? Because he says soooo much! In fact I cut out the beginning of the very long reading assigned, which began with a bunch of if-then logic which makes my brain get all twisted up. (but if you follow the scripture link in the chat you can read the whole thing and try to make sense of it yourself).

The fact is, though, the early church only had some oral histories of Jesus and stories like Paul’s of his appearances to the disciples. So they struggled in the same way that we do to understand what it means to be a disciple. That’s the reason Paul went on so long - trying to help them make sense of Jesus. In this passage he’s responding to questions we all have now more than ever: Why do these bodies of ours suffer? What do we do with chaos? How do we deal with death?

This week on a walk, Orie asked if we could look for the dead bird. We’d seen the carcass of a dead robin a couple days previous and he wanted to return to the scene. In fact we have also inspected the bodies of a dead mole and a dead rat on our walks. In our world, death is real. It surrounds us every day in every statistic. And for many of us - for many of you - it is more real and painful and wrenching than the bodies of creatures found in the grass and at the side of the road. It’s family. It’s fearful. Those questions that Paul and the Corinthians had - we have them too.

Paul’s lens of understanding death - and life - is Jesus. He takes the problem of death and remembers his experience of a resurrected Jesus, who appeared to him and so many in a resurrected and transformed body, and applies that understanding to the problem. As I read Pauls’s words over and over this week, at first it seemed to me as if he was trying to deny death, to spiritualize the reality of death: asking rhetorically where is it’s sting? and proclaiming victory through resurrection. Death swallowed up by life? That’s what is hard to swallow.

These verses in 1 Corinthians 15 are a boiling down of Paul’s theology: God cared enough about the stuff of creation - earth and flesh and plants and water - that God became a part of it. In a human body that suffered and died. And that lived again. We’ve all heard of the dad-bod. Jesus had a God-bod. And, in fact we are all God-bods. Cathryn Schifferdecker, a Lutheran Bible scholar, tells her students, “matter matters.” Our bodies and the stuff of this earth is important to God, our creator.

Bodies matter so much to Paul that it is essential to his theology that they not just disintegrate and disappear into the universe. That they don’t, like the mole and rat and robbin, return to the earth. Paul believes our bodies are important and beloved by God. We are not two easily separated halves - body and soul - but whole beings in which both are sacred. So in death, believes Paul, our bodies will be transformed, remaining whole in the presence of God.

We have zero proof of what happens to our bodies or our spirits after death. I expect that we in our congregation believe many different things about that - just like the Corinthian Christians did. But we all have bodies. We love people and creatures who are embodied beings. And if we do believe in a Creator God who was intimately involved in piecing together the cells of leaves and the atoms in microbes and the fur and feathers of rats and robbins, and our own selves and spirits, then we are matter that matters - we have and we are God-bods.

I believe that means where we put our bodies and how we treat our bodies and what we do with our bodies - and the bodies of others - matters to God. Jesus, the original God-bod was our model: beginning from his birth as a fragile infant body, which we can imagine because like little baby Jedidiah, we have been and we have held and cared for bodies like that. And to his teenage body, nurturing his spirit and feeding his intellect in the temple, which we also know through our experience of study and discernment in community. Jesus' body spent years in a ministry of healing and feeding bodies and we follow his example in our care for and relationships with all manner of folks whose bodies and spirits long for wholeness. Jesus allowed his body and spirit rest, and like him we seek solace and sabbath. And finally he submitted his body to a violent and painful death in his dedication to God’s reign over all. But finally finally his body was resurrected.

I do not know where my body will be after death, nor in that coming day, though I want to believe that somehow I will be joined with my creator. I do know where my body is now. It is on the path with the bodies of animals decomposing into soil, and also flying and scurrying and hopping through the grass. It is with my dear ones and it is being broadcast through mystery and science to be beheld by your bodies. Our bodies are beloved. May we love them. May we love the bodies of all God’s creatures.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Love Is...

"Can I help you?"

"No, I have to work."

A minute later, "Can I help you now?"

"Not really, I'm reading something."

"But what can I help you with?" He is plaintive.

Regardless of my insistence that what would really help the most is putting away the toys in the living room and taking the laundry out of the dryer, the pleas continue. This along with calls to "Look at me" and "Can you do something with me?" and "I'm bored!" are more or less constant throughout the day. I finally gave in.

"Okay, you know what you can help me with? I'm going to write an email to families from our church. What should I say?"

"I love you and Orie loves you." he replies immediately.

My annoyance and impatience melt and think, that even fits with the Bible passage I'm working on!

"Can I write it?"

I sigh but tell him sure and he climbs on my lap to create the screen cap above. It takes a long time.

I'm not sure how y'all are filling your days and caring for your kids, but this is pretty much what work looks like for me right now. Except most of the time I'm not a lot less understanding and probably more often than not I snap, "Just go to your room!" or "Can you just stop asking for snacks for FIVE MINUTES so I can finish a thought!?"

Yesterday both my kids helped me with a project that some of y'all and your kids are contributing to as well. We recorded some short sections of the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 which you'll most often hear at weddings: Love is patient, love is kind, it isn't jealous, it doesn't brag, etc. All these attributes of love which are so often virtues extolled when celebrating a romantic relationship didn't have romance in mind at all when they were written.

Paul wrote to a church where people were having trouble getting on the same page about what it meant to follow Jesus. Not unlike the church today! In Corinth these Jesus-followers might not have chosen to be a faith family but they were stuck with each other because as disciples of Jesus they were the church.

These days the people we're stuck with are our own family members. You may not all have active and insistent five-year-olds in your homes, but possibly you do have people at home who take work to love sometimes.

When Paul says, "Love is patient" or "Love does not make lists of complaints." or "Love trusts" I think of all the ways that in my relationships with my family members I am impatient, that I let the complaints stack up, that I am suspicious or untrusting. Now, everything has changed. JK, reflecting on this passage hasn't put an end to my impatience. I am failing constantly. But maybe a little less constantly? I did let the kid sit on my lap instead of putting him off for the thousandth time.

But I have hope! When we were working on our videos and I was inviting Orie to say "Love never fails," into the camera. His sister in classic teen says, "Uh, yeah it does." The thing is, though, God's love doesn't. That's where I get my hope. My love will probably fail a million times. But as I try and fail, God's love will not end.

It was a joy for me to record my kids speak (and shout and giggle) Paul's words of love with enthusiasm (a little too much enthusiasm maybe - tune in Sunday to see) and I was overjoyed with all the kids also interested in taking part. I'm really looking forward to seeing and hearing them and to figuring out how to put all these words about God's love together in the video for our scripture reading in Zoom church.

Folks, we're figuring out news ways to love each other and our families. We're figuring out new ways to be together all the time. But thanks be to God, who is also here and loving us all the time.

You're doing a great job!

Monday, May 04, 2020

World Turned Upside Down

When I first read through this text, the words that I found the most striking (after being like, wait there’s a Jason in the Bible??) were the accusations against Paul and Silas: These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.

It’s translated in different ways in different texts - this isn’t a Greek phrase - but I really like it. I think I caught into it, honestly, because of Hamilton. The song is the battle of Yorktown - that outlines the battle, the losses, the surrender and then...freedom for America! And the drinking song they’re singing: The world turned upside down. In some nominal ways, at least, the earliest (European immigrant) Americans were like the earliest church: passionate, revolutionary, all-in, and determined to throw off the bonds of an empire.

And of course, there are differences. Paul starts where he’s most comfortable - in the synagogue. He’s Jewish, after all and doesn’t really see a distinction between his alignment with Jesus and his alignment with his Judaism. And as a Jewish believer, who values argument and dialogue with other Jews, he dives into scripture to engage the question of Jesus’ reign as Messiah. He does convince a few. And he convinces more than a few Greek God-worshippers. Enough to create a small community and it’s that community that’s accused by the Jewish establishment of treason - of mis-allegiance.

All through the Gospels, the disciples are asking - when, Jesus? When is the revolution? They’re expecting a battle - a Yorktown - and Jesus has to explain again and again. Folks, I’m not that kind of Messiah. The Jewish community in Thessalonica has the same misconception about this new crew. This isn’t a violent revolution. Jesus turns revolution itself on its head. Yes, they’re claiming him as king - but a king whose most powerful act was non-violent submission and reclaiming life from death.

One of the ways Paul imitates Jesus is by proclaiming that non-violent love. Thessalonian Jews - like those who were Jesus’ peers a decade or so before - would have felt threatened by that. They were a small community is a Roman/Greek city. They didn’t need people who called themselves Jews going around yapping about a king who wasn’t Caesar. They wanted to protect their community and ultimately Paul was run out of town.

Paul may have been run out of town, but the community he left behind, in turn became the revolutionary community. You can hear it in his letter back to them. He cites their work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in Jesus. He praises them for becoming imitators of himself and Silas and therefore imitators of Jesus himself. And he notes that in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers.

There is no doubt about it - our world has absolutely been turned upside down in the past few months. Likely it will never be fully righted. I think our challenge is, what kind of revolution might it spark? What ways can we follow Jesus out of this upside down world and into his upside down realm? And now, while the world is on its head, how can we use the shake up to notice how Jesus is calling us to love and justice?

Our reflection question for our fellowship time is, “What have you realized you can live without.” Many of us have realized that we can’t live without mail carriers and grocery workers and food production workers. I know many folks boycotted Amazon and other major retailers on May 1 to call for equity for warehouse and food and other essential employees. I pray that we may continue to seek a world that’s set on its head and follows the upside down king. The world turned upside down!

image by Paul Vasilovski on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Tantrums and Meltdowns and Grief

"She's having the tantrum you want to have."  This is the response of a grief specialist to parents who are trying to understand their preschooler's erratic behavior after a late-term miscarriage.  A death that they were grieving and coming to terms with as well as learning how to talk about with their living child.

This story is part an essay about children and grief in the book When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith Filled Answers for Tough Topics.*  I've been dipping in and out of this book for awhile, on topics ranging from bodies to money to race to relationships and a lot of ground in between.  I haven't finished it yet but the section on loss just seemed like the right thing to read after a long day and wakeful night.  A day and night after which I felt deeply the opening phrase.  Cause, yeah, I sure feel like hitting and screaming and I've done my share of crying.

There have been many times in the past couple of months (we're coming up on months already!) when I have watched my child melt down, and wanted to respond with empathy but could only offer my version of the tantrum which is to snap, or yell or issue an ultimatum.  And there have been times when I have been able to hold him and listen and take deep breaths together and move through it.  I can see how little control he has over anything - even less than usual - and how small his world has become.  He's grieving.  We all are.

"She's having the temper tantrum you want to have," we both took deep breaths. She was so right, and we had missed it.  Through her clinginess, outbursts, tears and emotion our daughter was exposing the emotional instability within out entire family. We all wanted to scream, we each needed to hold tight to one another in the middle of the night, and we - individually and collectively - felt compelled to cry out to anyone who would listen that life simply was not fair." 

The authors of the essays in this book are about the loss of people in their lives. Loss of a parent or spouse is a traumatic event for a family and it's not like what we're experiencing in this time of pandemic.  But we are experiencing loss: loss of friends, loss of activities we love, loss of control, expectation and hope.  And even if our children aren't feeling all those losses for themselves, they certainly can sense their parents and other adult's grief and anxiety.

Even though these essays were about grieving the loss of persons, there were a few pearls I found helpful.  Top of the heap was, it's okay to show your kids that you're grieving and to talk about why.  And the companion to this is to make sure you're taking care of yourself and your own emotions, have someone to talk to and process your own feelings.  That processing (not with your child!) might also help give you the language that will develop your child's vocabulary of emotions, which both they and you need to be able to communicate what you're feeling.

There are probably scores of books out there that deal with kids and loss - I actually have several picture books on my shelf - but I found it helpful the specifically faith-oriented way that I was continually reassured of that God's love endures.  That God too grieves with us.  That faith doesn't demand that we put on a happy face.  Thank God!

Parents, friends to children, you're doing a great job! Even when you feel like you're not.  This is a hard thing that we're doing.  Keep breathing and know your belovedness, your children's belovedness.  We're in it together somehow.
* Handily, when I went to the link above for the book, I found out it's currently on sale. Just sayin' :)

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Wash Your Hands...And Someone Else's Feet

God knows, by now it has been drilled into us how important it is to wash our hands so we can protect ourselves and our neighbors from spreading disease. Hand washing is almost a religion unto itself, what with the regularity of practice and the accompanying singing. We haven't given our feet much thought, though. Except, in my case, to mourn the sad state of my pedicure.

Over the last couple years, one of my favorite services at SMC has been the Maundy Thursday meal and footwashing service. I have always loved footwashing since my time worshiping in the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Manitoba, where it's practiced somewhat more regularly than in other Mennonite denominations. It's a tactile time of worship that allows us to engage the story of Jesus and our commitment to service and to each other with our bodies. It is an intimate and caring act that we can do for each other in community. (One of my favorite reflections on Maundy Thursday here.)

At SMC it has been special because particularly in recent years we have been intentional in making it simple and accessible to families with kids, which also has meant that as a leader I've been able to participate with my own kids, and that it's been okay to be a little less formal and a little more loose.

I don't think that this informality has made it any less meaningful. Certainly not for me and definitely not for the smallest person in my life. Regularly - maybe once a month - since last Maundy Thursday that person has asked whether it's footwashing time. It never is, of course, until now. But now we won't be able to gather with our friends to serve each other in this way. It is a real sadness for me.

That is why I wanted to create a liturgy - still as simple and accessible as possible - for families like mine to practice at home. Options for a family of one to as many as are in your household, reading the story or reflecting on an image. Even washing hands if feet aren't your thing. I am comforted by the knowledge that even in our separate places we'll be sharing something of this day of loving service.

You can access the liturgy at the google doc if you want to give it a try.  We won't be with our church this year, but in the meantime here is a picture from last year that still delights me and makes me tear up a little.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Back to Our Senses

This morning on the podcast "Seattle Now" education reporter Ann Dornfeld talked to several parents who were trying to figure out the balance of getting their own jobs done and caring for and educating their kids. There was a great variety of experiences but needless to say everyone is feeling stretched and unfocussed. And some are finding some bright spots in time spent with family in new ways.

My bright spot in what has been a stressful time of sharing a relatively small home in which both of the adults are trying to still do our jobs full time, including connecting through online meetings which require attention and focus, has been walks. We're all going on a lot of walks. And walks can start feeling monotonous too, even in this beautiful city and especially for kids and teens who would rather be at a playground or hanging out with friends.

When I can go for a walk my myself I will often listen to music or podcasts or books. Obviously not possible when you're walking with others. So I've found a couple of the things have made walks a little more interesting when we're walking together. The first is scavenger hunts (this one is especially for the little one, who loves to check things off of a list) that I've found online or created - with pictures for non-readers. I thank my mother, the retired teacher, for turning us onto this suggestion. Orie has started making his own scavenger hunts to bring on walks, which is great because that's one less thing I have to prepare.

The second is a mindfulness practice that you may have seen if you follow me on Instagram (@amymarieepp). It's a practice that invites you to pay attention to the moment and your body. And it works great at any age. When I feel like I've been focusing to hard on something or I've been staring at a screen too long, or my mind is racing, or my body is tense, this is a great way to slow down and check in with myself. On a walk, it's a way to notice both our bodies and our surroundings.
Take a few deep breaths. Now notice with your senses. Identify the following:
  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can feel
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste.
On the walk with my kids yesterday we were seeing things like flowering trees, clouds in the sky and neighborhood cats. Hearing the birds, the crunch of our feet and the wind. We felt the drops of chill of the air and bent down to feel the rain on the grass. We smelled the someone cooking and thought we could take how fresh the air was. It did almost turn into a competition of who can name things first, but overall it was a lovely practice and turned into an eye-spy like game of noticing and naming other things we saw and heard on our way.

Some of y'all may be experiencing this time as slower and more spacious, but many of us are doing double duty. Nurturing ourselves and the ones we care for is hard! I thank God for gift of moments that bring us back to our senses and allow us to experience the moment and each other. 

images: (top) a forsythia in a neighbor's yard; (above) scavenger hunt in action