Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Between Voting and Veteran's Day


This coming Sunday is Veteran’s Day. For students in some schools it’s reason for military assemblies and recruitment. For many working folks, it’s a day off, intended to honor and recognized the lives of military veterans and courageous acts in wartime. But this is also the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, from which Veteran’s Day was born. The intention of the original Armistice Day was literally a laying down of arms; remembering the cost of war and violence and working toward a peaceful future.


I shake my head to think of where the world - and especially the United States - has come since that armistice treaty and its commitment to work peaceably with neighbors worldwide. That first world war was, of course, not the war to end all wars. The United States has become the dominant global military power and the proportion of military spending in this country equals half its discretionary budget.


Having just come through another election in the US, it seems to me that progressives - including Christians, including peace-loving and justice-seeking Mennonites who would favor a reclaiming of the non-violent message of armistice - lean heavily into the idea that a vote equals a voice. Through our votes, the idea goes, we can make change and begin to align our Christian ideals with the society we live in. I did not vote in this election. Most folks know after this many years of ministry that I can’t vote because I am not (yet) a citizen. Does that mean that I don’t have a voice?

I am glad that this election is over if for no other reason than I will no longer have to see in all my social media feeds and in advertising the urge to vote, Vote, VOTE!! While I wouldn’t say it’s painful, I would say it’s a little irritating. People are not voting for many reasons. A few by choice or religious conviction - as our Anabaptist ancestors had - that our allegiance is to Christ alone (more about this in Pastor Megan’s most recent sermon). A few from disgust or apathy. But many people who would like to vote are disenfranchised, because like me they are immigrants. Because they are in jail or have committed a felony. Because of unreasonable voting requirements that amount to voter suppression.

Folks, I’m glad that those of you who could vote did. Theologian and leader Drew Hart, who identifies as an ‘Anablacktivist’ tweeted this on election day, “Voting won't usher shalom into the world, but it can curb the injustice & limit the dominance of powerful people seeking to harm the least and last of society. That's why I vote, and then continue the hard work 365 days of the year.” So I am celebrating the strides forward in representation made by women, people of color, including indigenous folk, LGBTQ representatives and leaders. And I don’t assume that just because I didn’t vote I don’t have a voice to raise for the sake of peace, for the sake of shalom building this Veteran’s Day and beyond.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Bathsheba's #MeToo


We’ve had some hard stories from the Bible this fall. Some of them that have been re-packaged as children’s bible stories with cute animals or heroic escapes. Leaving out the death. There’s kind of no getting around that this story is most certainly not for children. It’s potentially triggering - if that’s the case for you, I’m sorry. The Bible is really hard.

But somehow this story has been cleansed and sanitized. David is forever the scrappy kid who defeated the giant. Or the heroic King, prominent in the family line from the patriarchs to Jesus. But I have never been able to read this story without feeling enraged. Frankly, it’s very difficult for me to write this sermon - this paragraph - without using foul language and calling David some very un-family-friendly names.

When I was 15, I sat in a crowded service taxi in Amman Jordan - like a taxi but with a route like a bus. Up to four people squished into the back seat. My mom was on my left and a probably thirty-something man was on my right. And while we drove, the man’s hand began to sneak up my leg under the coat I carried. From my knee slowly inching further up. I clenched my legs. I froze. When our stop came I bolted out after my mom. I didn’t ever tell her. Or anyone. For a really long time.

#MeToo.

Every woman has a story something like this. Or worse. Bathsheba’s story is much, much worse.

Stories of consent and the violation of consent have been front and center in these weeks, in this past year or more. Listening the Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony a couple weeks ago and seeing the man who took his privilege and power for granted from the time he was a teen, be essentially given a pass.

Consent can be broken down to three words: Ask, Listen, Respect. Dr Ford’s encounter and others would have gone quite differently had Brett followed through on those. But our interactions, consent is not only about bodies and touching and hugging and kissing, although autonomy over our own bodies is very basic - including hugs and kisses even from beloved family members. Children are beginning to learn this on flip charts in school. Ask for consent, listen to the answer and respect the answer you receive. When you want to borrow your friend’s ruler. When you want to sit by someone in the cafeteria When want to move your neighbor’s backpack because it’s in the way.

I am still learning this. I could put my finger on a couple of things I did this week where if I had followed these rules I would not have harmed a relationship or had to apologize for something later.

Maybe you’ve heard or seen the tea analogy. There’s a very cute YouTube video that elaborates on how consent works in an ‘amorous’ encounter:

Do you want some tea?

Yes, I love having tea with you.

Okay! I’ll make you some tea.

Hmm - I don’t think I want tea any more. Maybe just water.


What I don’t say: NO YOU HAVE TO DRINK TEA! YOU LOOK REALLY THIRSTY FOR TEA!

What I don’t do: Put the tea cup up against your mouth and pour the tea through your clenched lips. Even though I really wanted to have tea with you.

What I do say: Let me get you that water. I’ll put this tea away - or maybe I’ll drink it myself. I do not get annoyed or upset because you decided you’re just not into tea right now.

Just because you had tea last week, doesn’t mean you want tea now. And an unconscious person definitely cannot drink tea and you should make sure that person is safe, not pour tea in their mouth.

So, okay. It may be inappropriate for me to layer today’s cultural context and understandings onto the world of ancient Israel. The culture of David and Bathsheba is not the same as the culture we live in now, difficult as it is for me to remember this as I put myself in Bathsheba’s place. With Saul and then David becoming king, power has been centralized in Israel. Kingdoms and political power are established and maintained through marriage - through brokering with powerful fathers for marriageable daughters. David has at least 3 wives to this point in his king-ship.

The greater the hierarchy, the more likely it is to be centralized in men - here in one man - and the less power that women have, the further toward the bottom they fall. Unlike in the era of the judges in Israel's history (over which we’ve taken a giant leap in this year of the narrative lectionary), which was more chaotic, but in which charismatic leaders rose to the fore, allowing rulers like Deborah, or Jael to have status.

You can see this even in the evolution of the church - in the early church women led and were apostles but then the church began to be established. In the early days of Anabaptism, there were women who prophesied and preached but that fell away, even in a relatively flat hierarchy. We’ve only just kinda/sorta begun to change this in the church.

But let’s think about this story just in term of the ten commandments and the covenant relationship that we’ve been hearing from the beginning of September. Even by standards of his time, David is a [insert bad word here - I really couldn't think of something bad enough that was church-appropriate to say.] He completely misuses his power in summoning and assaulting Bathsheba. Then, without a second thought, continues to use his position to give his actions legitimacy including ensuring the death of a prominent leader in his ranks.

Even if, as was true in that context, that Bathsheba is described in her relationship to her father Eliam, and wife of Uriah. Essentially property. Even then, in his context of a covenant relationship dictated by the gift of a law to give guidance to God’s people - we heard it reiterated by Joshua last week - David believes himself above it. It is his belief that blessing equals him being able to do what he wants: shirk his duty, covet, take, adulterate, murder. How many commandments is that?

The way much of history has told and retold this story is twofold - both problematic and both evident Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ You know the one...maybe most famously by Jeff Buckley. David is a hapless romantic; a baffled king composing hallelujah, overthrown by moonlight and beauty. In my opinion, those don’t equal consent or negate assault. In fact, I think the intense, “well-meaning,” bumblers are most often given a pass because dogged pursuit - even if rebuffed - is read as romantic when from a woman’s perspective it’s just short of stalking.

And second Bathsheba is a sultry, seductress. Bathing in the open as a lure and - the Cohen’s ballad - tying the overcome David to the kitchen chair. In fact the text is basically neutral about Bathsheba in both emotion and intent. It was David strolling on the roof after his nap - presumably giving him a view into somewhere private where Bathsheba was bathing. And with a power such as he has, she has no course to refuse him when she is summoned. Dave sees something he wants and takes it.

A colleague in ministry, Amy Yoder McLaughlin, a pastor in Pennsylvania shared a sermon she wrote about this story. She says:
The lack of humanity with which David treated Bathsheba, and the lack of humanity with which we have been told this story it is a symptom of a spiritual illness. It’s a narcissism that that insists on telling the story from the perspective of the powerful. It’s a narcissism that desires to be in David’s place, that wants to satisfy our own needs, rather that being present to the pain of others. This is the same narcissism that limits even the vision of the writers of the Hebrew scripture, who cannot manage–despite their gifted writing skills–to give this woman a voice.
There is so much of Bathsheba left out of story in verse 4 and 5 alone: So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’ Even her name is left out of these verses - and much of the story: the women, Uriah’s wife or ‘she’.

Is there any good news? I see it Nathan. Prophets for the win. Nathan’s whole job is telling David, “You are trash and you are acting like a garbage human.” I mean, he doesn’t say it quite like that. But he does pass along God’s message: “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” (A pretty tame way of saying that God is not about cheating and killing and lying and abuse.) In fact everything David has done flies in the face of the covenant relationship God has established with Israel.

I don’t love the parable that Nathan comes up with: a poor man’s darling pet lamb taken by the rich man, who ‘was loathe to take one of his own flock or herd’ to be a meal for guest. This parable is still about the property of men. But it is a parable that David could understand. He was a shepherd after all.

And contextually, it is very convicting. “You are the man!” proclaims Nathan. And David finally understands - at least to a degree - what he has done. He understands that he has violated, if not Bathsheba’s consent, (i’m not convinced he ever would have believed that she has anything to say about it) certainly his relationship with Uriah. Because has he asked, listened, and respected with Uriah - an indecent proposal type of situation? - he knows he would have heard - What? Dude! No!

There is zero about this story that says ideal situation and the consequences for David’s misdeeds fall most harshly on Bathsheba who is in the bind of having to marry the person who took advantage of her. It is her only recourse, her husband is dead and she is pregnant with another man’s child. There is no option, as there might be today to strike out on her own.

The child she bears as a result dies shortly after his birth, and David’s idea of comforting her is to sleep with her again. Maybe being given the opportunity to bear another child is in fact comfort to Bathsheba. But this man is no saint - I’ve said how much I was to call him bad names - his house falling into shambles, his relationships crumbling around him.

So what? What’s the takeaway? What are we to do with the heaviness of yet another grim story of power gone wrong?

I’m going to start with you, men: Be Nathan. Actually be better than Nathan, because I’m pretty sure he still saw women as the property of men not as full humans. Be the one who calls out, who notices, who cuts off the manslainers and redirects conversation, who notices and amplifies the voices of women. Be the one who interrupts ‘locker room talk’ with “Stop degrading women. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Just stop it.” And do not do this expecting pats on the back. Do it because “The thing he did displeased the Lord.” Do it because is your job, because you are human and so are women.

Women and non-binary folk, if you are Bathsheba, I am sorry. If you have had an experience like Bathsheba’s I hope that you are able to speak it into an ear that will listen and believe. For those of us who identify female or non-binary, it’s complicated. Because we too have power and privilege that we can misuse because we haven’t realized. I said it before: I’m still figuring out the ways I misuse my power - as a pastor, as a parent, as a white person in a neighborhood where there are many people of color

Ijeoma Oluo, who is a woman of color who speaks and writes on race and privilege talks in her book So You Want to Talk about Race about the complications of her own privilege - as a black women she says, she still has the privileges of being able-bodied, light-skinned, educated and informed and now, having a public platform.

The good news is in hearing Bathsheba’s #MeToo, in hearing all the awful stories of the Bible, is in also hearing - and being - the prophet’s voice. It is understanding that God’s desire is not for destruction but for care. A Nathan to my 15-year-old self might have noticed and said, “Get your hands off of her. Don’t ever touch a woman in that way again.” These narratives from the Hebrew Bible are hard. May we both be and hear the prophet in the stories we experience. Amen.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Raising Boys to be Believers


“They didn’t believe Mary either.” This is what’s currently on the reader board outside Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, where a friend of mine is a pastor. After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to Mary and (in Luke’s version) several other women, who returned to the apostles with the story of the encounter. “But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.” Peter and the rest of the bros had to see it for themselves. The word of their friends and fellow disciples was just not good enough or credible enough.

Looking at poll related to the Kavanaugh confirmation there is a sharp difference between the responses of men, who are more likely to believe Brett Kavanaugh’s story and support his confirmation to the Supreme Court and, and women, who are more likely to believe Christine Blasey Ford that he assaulted her when both were high school students. As a parent to a little (cisgender, white) boy, who will become a man in a culture permeated with the idea that (straight, cis, white) men’s experience is the default, I am very concerned. I want him to be a believer.

There are four essential responses to someone who discloses an assault or even coercion. The very first one is, “I believe you.” And the expression of belief should be backed up immediately by, “It’s not your fault. I will support you. Let’s get help.” We’ve all heard by now how under-reported coercion and assault are for all the reasons from fear of repercussions to shame and guilt that the survivor could have prevented it somehow. Men and boys need to be a part of changing the culture that keeps women from telling and be the first to say, “I believe you. I will help.”

We know how much Jesus valued his relationships with women.  He believed in their autonomy in relationship and believed in them as agents of the Gospel. To use a manner of speech, when Jesus first exposed himself to the women, the men who were their friends should have said, "We believe you!"

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Day You Begin


There will be times when you walk into a room and no one is quite like you.
Maybe it will be your skin, your clothes or the curl of your hair.
There will be times when no one will understand the way words curl from your mouth,
The beautiful language of the country you left behind...
And because they don't understand the room will fill with laughter until the teachers quiets everyone...
There will be time when the words don't come.
Your own voice, once huge, now smaller.


I love every, single thing I've ever read from Jacqueline Woodson.  (In fact I wrote about some of her middle grade fiction here.) This beautiful book about the fear of new beginnings is no different.  I got teary just from reading the preview pages online. Beginnings are hard! We who have had so many first days of school can easily forget that our children are staring into the unknown and possibly scary when they walk into a new classroom or a new school for the first time.

Beginnings can be full of anxiety, especially if you have a kid that leans that way anyway.  What will my teacher be like? Will the work be too hard? Who will be my friend?  Am I wearing the right thing? I don't want to leave my mom! Woodson's book layers in the additional complexity of language and race and offers an opportunity to ask, "Why do you think 'the curl of her hair' might make her fell out of place?" and "What make you feel unsure or alone?" Young or old we all know what it's like to want to be understood and feel welcomed in a new place.

We may not be able to completely remove our kids' anxiety about beginning something new, but we can assure them of two things: our love for them and God's constant care.

Small comfort? Maybe.  But if you have the space for it and can carve out the time, try a night-before or morning-of blessing and litany of beginning.  You can make up your own words that make sense for your context and the age of your child, but the scripts that we repeat in our heads are powerful, no matter our age, so give your kid the script.  It might go something like this:

Tomorrow you are beginning a new thing. I'm proud of you and I want to bless you and send you on your way with words to help you when you feel nervous or uncertain. When you need to remind yourself of your own strength.  I want to to say these words each time:  God is with me. My family loves me. I can do hard things!

When you step into your new classroom for the first time...
When you're discovering all your new routines and schedules...
When you're wondering who will be your partner, who will sit with you at lunch, who to be your friend...
When you feel challenged by the school work...
When you feel overwhelmed or anxious...
When you miss the ones you love...
God is with you.  Your family loves you. You are strong and you can do hard things!

An optional addition to such a blessing which has been helpful in my experience is a meaningful tangible reminder of the care, love and safety for your child to carry with them.  A piece of jewelry or small item that fits in a pocket quietly says, "God is with me, my people love me, I am not alone."

If you have a child for whom newness is exciting, an adventure to be embraced, rejoice! Or even if this new beginning is just another day, I think it's still worthwhile to bless these new steps with courage and joy and determination.  To thank God for the the Spirit within them, delighting in the opportunities that await.  A litany for such a child can be a celebration, in the spirit of the end of Woodson's book:

This is the day you begin
to find the places inside
your laughter and your lunches,
your books, your travel and your stories,

where every new friend has something
a little like you - and something else
so fabulously not quite like you
at all.


Peace to you in the days of preparation and beginnings.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Reading for Hope and Justice




I wasn't planning on doing too many of these over the summer months. But it's been a very discouraging last few weeks, no? Stories and images of children separated from their parents after the trauma of the homes they left behind is almost too much too bear. And yet, people are somehow bearing it in their hearts and bodies every day - even here in Washington there are over 200 adults in the immigration detention center whose children are being kept elsewhere.

How on earth can we explain this crisis to our own children? Should we? As I often do, I turn to literature to help me have these conversations. I turned to a resource I've looked to for awhile and I discovered a cool new resource for parenting for justice.


Here Wee Read is an old favorite. Charnaie, the creator of this resource has several virtual stores through Amazon, including one on immigration. I found it to be a helpful bibliography of books at a variety of levels from preschool to young adult. I was unfamiliar with many, but can personally recommend Inside Out and Back Again, a story told in verse from the perspective of a Vietnamese refugee girl in the south. And The Sun is Also A Star, which is a YA novel about two teenagers: Korean American boy and a Jamaican girl on the eve of her deportation. It's a real tear-jerker/page-turner (Kindle-tapper?) love story, which I just found out is going to be made into a movie starring the star of Blackish and Grownish and a guy I didn't recognize from Riverdale. I'll be first in line.

Barefoot Mommy is my new discovery. A seminary educated social justice advocate who as a parent is putting her energy into how to raise socially conscious kids. She herself is parent to a five-year-old and a teen. This list of books has some overlap with the Here Wee Read list, but also includes discussion questions, audio of Story Corps interviews with immigrants and video of a young woman talking about being separated from her father by ICE. From there she links to other resources as well, including tools (like this one) for writing letters to legislators with kids.

Finally, our local libraries also have lists of books related to immigration. I've already put a bunch of them on hold. Don't be surprised if some of them make it into children's time over the summer.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Blessing the Transitions


For those of us who have children in school, the end of school is a significant transition, whether it's into a new grade, a new school or graduating and going off to college. We mark these transitions with chalk board "end of x grade" photos on Instagram (or is that just in my feed - can't say I'm that organized myself). In our congregation we have a tradition of marking the transition out of high school with a quilt and an invitation to grads to bring some show-and-tell mementos of their life as students. But how, for all our children, do we honor and bless the work and accomplishments, the joy and anticipation, and mark these transitions as significant life moments that are held in the hands of God?

Traci Smith, whose work I've recommended before, makes the suggestion to present to a graduate the gift of new shoes. Along with the new shoes, a picture of or the actual shoes they wore as they began school and a blessing. Something like this: "We remember the feet that wore these little shoes and we are so proud of all the places your feet have take you and taken us together - the classrooms, and sports fields and stages and trails. We have seen your feet, and every part of you, grow so much! May God bless your feet. As you as you continue to grow in knowledge and in spirit, may God walk with you wherever your future takes you."

Maybe the gift is shoes decorated by a family member or maybe there are additional mementos and gifts inside the new shoes, or a special letter. Maybe it's just a gift certificate to pick shoes that the graduate will like. I love this idea for a transition or graduation. We usually think of giving new items of clothing at the beginning of a school year, but this really honors the path that has been trod. And not to get all "Footprints," but Jesus has been walking with our children every step of the way.

This end-of-school time is a time for a benediction, a blessing to send us into something new - even if the something new is just summer break. So I offer you this benediction and a blessing on the transition:

May your feet come alive
in the unknown geography that waits for them.
May you step from this threshold into an adventure
in which the One who created you,
in whose image you are beautifully formed,
calls you into love,
compels you toward joy
and promises to be always present when your feet stumble.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Breaking Our Kids' Hearts


"We need to break our kids hearts," said Jennifer Harvey in her talk at The Well last Thursday evening. "There's nothing innocent about white innocence." In her follow up to her book Dear White Christians, called Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America Harvey is inspired by the questions and issues arising from her own parenting, and her desire to again address her own community: white folks. Most of the folks in our congregation who are parent are raising or have raised white kids. And all of us - parents of white kids or not - have ample opportunities to grow in the ways that we engage our families and communities around issues of awareness, bias, privilege and racial justice.


What Dr. Harvey means when she says we must break our children's hearts is that it is only our privilege that allows us to protect our kids from knowing personally the bias and racism experienced daily by people of color. We want our children to be people who are advocates for justice and equality and teaching them that everyone is the same - teaching 'colorblindness' - ignores the fact that people are in fact different. And those differences mean that those who are people of color have been and continue to be treated differently. The only way that our children can fight for their fellow humans, the only way they can be brave together through the awkward and the uncertain is to know the pain and tragedy of what happens because of implicit and explicit racism and then rebuild their understanding that we and they have agency to respond in just ways.

Harvey's book speaks from her own experience as a parent of white children and aunt to two black children. She starts from the beginning (there's literally a chapter called "Where do I start?") for folks who are at a loss for how to initiate conversations in their families. And she acknowledges that it can be fraught and confusing and awkward but presses us to dive in anyway. When we don't find ways of addressing race, children will notice and make their own conclusions about our opinions.


As a parent of a tween, I have my radar attuned to middle grade fiction that addresses issues of race, since I always like books to do a little of the work for me and give me a reference point in conversation. I have two suggestions that I think will also be meaningful reading for adults:


Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (and any book by her - she writes picture books for younger children as well) deals with race, faith, disability and belonging through the eyes of a sixth grade girl. Franny is a black girl living in an all-black neighborhood but begins to ask questions about how black and white folks should interact when a white kid who looks a lot like Jesus shows up in her classroom. We read this book together and then we used the questions at the back of the book as a starting place for conversation about our own experience and attitudes.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (and anything by her too). I haven't read this one yet but heard the author on The Longest Shortest Time podcast and then went to see her the next day when I discovered that she was speaking and reading at the Seward Park Third Place Books. Her book starts with the shooting of Jerome, a 12-year-old black boy, by a white police officer. It tells the rest of the story through his eyes as a ghost - encountering both the grief of his family and community, a host of other ghosts, including Emmett Till, and the one child who can still see and hear him: Sarah, the daughter of the officer who shot him.

Both of these books are heartbreaking in just the way that Harvey suggests. They will break open our own and our kids' hearts in ways that we can put them back together again full of hope. Much of the hope in the books is lodged in the young protagonists and their peers. I was so impressed by Jewell Parker Rhodes in how full of joy she was in spite of the heavy content of her work. She sparkled with delight in the young people in her audience and urged all of us, young and old alike to tell stories like Jerome's and to talk to each other about how to build hope and justice in our communities. We can start in our own families.