Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A New Year, Three Kings and Discernment

We Three Kings
Happy New Year! Wait, no. Happy Epiphany!! In the church’s calendar the year is already well begun. With Advent we began our time of anticipating the presence of Jesus. Now we’ve celebrated Jesus’ birth and wait for the world’s clock to turn with champagne, confetti and fireworks into 2015. But the story of the nativity isn’t quite over yet. This Sunday is Epiphany Sunday, the day of hearing the story of wise men from the east who followed a prophecy and a star to find the infant and his family in Bethlehem.

The day of Epiphany itself is on the 6th of January (at the end of the 12 days of Christmas) but on Sunday we’ll worship with this as our theme. This is a Sunday full of light and gifts. In some cultures this day is more a day of celebration and gift giving than the day of Christmas itself, even dressing up and enact the journey of the kings, camels and all. This article a the Huffington Post has some pictures of how the holiday is celebrated in Latin America and Spain and around the world.

Beginning and Ending a Journey in Discernment
It’s appropriate that we celebrate the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new life at this time that coordinates with the closing of the old year and the beginning of a new one. Much has happened this past year in the life of the congregation. We’ve followed a path this year much as the wise ones did and that might be worth some sparkle and fireworks. We say goodbye to Gordon, who began his time as Intentional Interim Pastor with us one year ago on Epiphany Sunday. It has been a year of listening and letting go and maybe coming to new understandings. What will the journey beginning look like?

One way to approach the New Year in a more thoughtful way that making a list of resolutions (who keeps those, anyway?) is to hold the year gone by and anticipate the new year with Ignatian practice of Consolation and Desolation, or the Examen. This is a practice that may be embarked on both individually or with others, for example as a household or small group or in listening and sharing with a friend or partner.

As a daily discernment practice, the Examen can be boiled down to asking the questions, “For what moment am I most grateful today?” and “For what moment am I least grateful?” Ignatius would say that our consolation – that for which I am most grateful – is that which helps connect us with our selves, to others, to God and to the universe. Our desolation disconnects us.

Reflecting on these questions daily, you can be encouraged to ‘hold what gives you life.’ This is the subtitle to Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn’s Book Sleeping with Bread, in which they explore the practice of Examen. In a yearly practice, as we look back over the year gone by, we can reflect on the moments which have been life giving and fulfilling. How are we called to live more into moments like those? How can we let go of that which disconnects us? Finding the answers to these questions alone or with others, is practicing discernment – a completely different thing than list making.

Three Kings Stories
Worshiping with Children is specifically about Sunday morning worship, but sometimes Carolyn Brown has great ideas for children’s books to accompany a season or Sunday. (Some of her ideas would be very adaptable to activities at home). She says that two of the best of these stories for children on this Three Kings Day are: The Legend of Old Befana, by Tomie dePaola. and Baboushka, retold by Arthur Scholey. (I’m not familiar with Arthur Scholey, but I can vouch for de Paola, who has multiple children’s books on biblical themes, including an illustrated children’s Bible).

Of The Legend of Old Befana Brown says: “In this well-loved European folk tale, an Italian grandmother meets the kings, then spends the rest of her life leaving cakes and cookies for children during the night on January 6.” Some questions and observations might accompany this story as you read: Stop after Befana has seen the star and complained that it kept her up at night. Wonder about “possibility of missing out on something wonderful because you were stuck in a grumpy rut. Note that the new year has many possibilities.” What are the possibilities in your family? Compare Befana’s grumpy face at the beginning to her happy face on the last page. Wonder what made the difference.

Baboushka is a Russian folktale. It is also about busy grandmother who meets the magi and is invited to come along. “At first she declines with lots of busy excuses, then decides to follow, but never catches up. An angel points out that the shepherds left immediately after the angels sang to them. The kings followed the star as soon as it appeared. She is simply too late. She keeps searching, carrying with her toys that she leaves with sleeping children in case they are the Christ child.” I didn’t see the Scholey version in the Seattle Public Library, but there are two other versions of the story.

Three Kings Bread
I’m going to try this recipe. But Google will give you plenty of options for the bread that resembles the crowns of the magi and have baby Jesus hidden inside!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Favor > Fear

“Glory to God in high heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”
              - Luke 2:14, The Inclusive Bible

When I was ordained I was invited to choose the texts that would be read and preached in the worship service. I chose two: Mary’s song – the Magnificat – and Jesus’s proclamation from the scroll of Isaiah. It was the beginning of his public ministry. I chose these both because of their content – the declaration of God’s just reign – and because they both marked no-turning-back points of change for the speakers, mother and son. They seemed appropriate to the moment of ordination to ministry.

During the ordination service, David Morrow, who was then our District Pastor, preached these texts and revealed what I had not seen in them. They have in common the declaration and celebration of God’s favor. In fact, references to God’s favor are threaded throughout the first part of Luke. Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, the angels and then Jesus himself declare or are recipients of God’s favor.

In many of these stories, fear is a companion of favor. Angels telling their audience not to fear, people boing fearful of what God is doing in their midst. Favor does not by any means have anything to do with respite or safety or privilege. What has become clear to me after reading Luke’s take on ‘favor,’ or charis in Greek, is that God is not doing anyone any favors by bestowing this favor upon them. In fact favor is where the trouble begins.

Just for starters: the child of Elizabeth and Zechariah becomes the prophet to makes way for Jesus, cruelly beheaded because of conflict with a corrupt monarchy. Mary’s song declares that God’s favor rests on the lowly, poor and hungry, but she’s still one of an occupied people (never mind being a pregnant, unwed teen). The song of the angels declares that peace will be for those on whom God’s favor rests – people like those very folks - terrified, occupied, lowly and watching their sheep on a hill.

But the thing about favor is, that where there is fear there is also praising and glorifying God. The shepherds were amazed and they returned from their encounter with the holy family praising! They wanted to tell it on the mountain. They wanted to spread the good news. With the declaration of and living into being favored, there is a mighty hope that the lowly will be lifted up, that the hungry will be fed. Those who accept God’s favor head right into that trouble because a trouble like that is a trouble the favored want to be a part of.

The baby whom the angels announce to the shepherds, when he first called out the year of the Lord’s favor in his Nazareth synagogue, that sounded pretty good to the people who were listening to him. Until he went one step further to talk about the love of God demonstrated to Gentiles and almost got himself thrown off a cliff. Later, well into his ministry of healing, Jesus raises a widow’s son in Nain and the first thing we hear of is fear! “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”

Fear and favor and glory to God are all mixed up together with the prophetic and prophesied action of Jesus – healing, preaching, calling disciples. Being favored by God is indeed a fearful thing. It is also a wonderful and joyful engagement with the reign of God. It is singing with Mary and the angels and preaching and healing with Jesus. Favor is greater than fear – far greater. May we give Glory to God in high heaven and may peace be upon those of us who rush head-long into God’s favor. No turning back.

This blog will be cross posted Christmas Day at Advent:Healing and Hope

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A (Mostly) White Congregation and Conversations about Race

We are a (mostly) white congregation.  Individually and as a group we have for the most part been insulated from experiences of discrimination, violence or even the ‘micro-aggressions’ which face people of color face regularly.  I’m encouraged that we are trying to raise our awareness of this in a variety of ways, including our recent worship series on the Doctrine of Discovery and how the last 500 years in its wake have led Europeans and their descendants to treat all non-white persons and the lands on which they’ve lived as individuals and spaces to be either colonized, subjugated or ‘civilized’ by any means necessary.  Although the Doctrine of Discovery is no longer something the majority of the population knows about, its impact continues to be lived and experienced both by people of color and by white folks.

The violence against African Americans by police in high profile events recently and the subsequent vigils, protests and campaigns for justice are a result of the last half millennia of this subjugation and internalized understanding of who we are in relation to each other.  I am left wondering about a) how to talk about these events, about this injustice with my child and b)how to respond and enact a lived justice that I believe I’m called to.

During the Loss of Turtle Island exercise, I experienced the visceral grief of my child when she learned about the way white settler Christian soldiers knowingly and systematically gave small pox blankets to indigenous people in order to infect (and kill) them.  We have taught our children that God loves everyone and that Jesus came to show God’s love to the whole world.  It is easy to believe this when your family looks like mine does - white, hetero-parented, middle class, educated - and our experience is not one of discrimination.

When confronted by the horrible injustice of small pox blankets, or of white police officers who are seemingly free to do violence to black people, the reality of the world collides with the reality of God’s world, that is the kin-dom which we are trying to teach our children is here and which we are a part of.  There is a collision and somehow at the same time a disconnect with what we – and God – long for and what is.

A couple weeks ago I shared an article by Peggy McIntosh about the ‘invisible backpack’ of white privilege.  The invisible backpack is all the ways that I don’t even realize that I benefit from systems that prefer light over dark skin, from knowing that I’ll be able to find books with characters that reflect me to not having to question whether the non-response to my resume was because of an ‘ethnic’ name.  Because of my own hope live in a community that is not all just like me, our family made a choice to live in a diverse neighborhood and enroll in a school that is highly diverse.  Our school is intentional about teaching respect for a multiplicity of cultures, focuses on peace heroes as a part of its yearly curriculum and approaches history from a variety of perspectives.  Right now a song about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott is being sung at my house and I am amazed and grateful.

I am also very aware of Peggy McIntosh’s point that even in this diverse school, I can count on most of my child’s teachers – even those who are teaching immersion Spanish – to looking like her.  I wonder what it’s like for a native Spanish speaking family from Mexico or El Salvador to have their child taught in Spanish by a blond, blue-eyed American.  In a way that her peers are not, my daughter can be blithely unaware of her color and even of theirs.  It takes me actively engaging the question of how I look different than many of my neighbors and may be treated differently because of it to raise that kind of awareness. 

That’s where I’m starting for now.  I’m not going out of my way to start conversations about Ferguson or about death, but sometimes I do encourage noticing.  When we’re reading a book about Ruby Bridges, I ask, what did you learn about Ruby?  Why do you think those people were so angry?  And when I’m asked questions about how I feel and why I try to be honest.  Here’s an approximation of a conversation that happened at my house last week.
“Mama, why were you crying at church this morning?” 
“Well, I was sad and frustrated.  In summer a young man who was black was shot by a police officer who was white and we found out this week that it doesn’t seem like there are going to be any consequences for the police officer.”
“Did he die?”
“Yes, he was shot and he died.”
“That’s not fair.  We’re not supposed to use guns.  He shouldn’t have done that.”
“You’re right.  It’s really not fair.  It’s also not fair that people who have white skin like us get treated different – better – than people who have brown skin like the person who was killed.  And that’s why I’m so sad and frustrated.”
We have often talked about guns in our family as not being okay.  We stress that Jesus wants us to be peace makers.  Why do the police have guns and but other people aren’t allowed to?  Not a question I can answer to my own satisfaction.
I am still sad and frustrated.  But I’m also determined to continue to re-examine my own attitudes, to listen to the experiences of people of color, and for the most part to keep my own mouth shut when in the context of people are sharing their experiences and to encourage other white people to do the same.  It’s not my experience that the world needs to hear.  For those of you in our congregation who identify as people of color, I am grateful for you and that you continue to walk with this congregation. I think a lot of what I can do is about acknowledging the power and privilege that I have and letting those who are giving voice to experience of discrimination or violence speak and, if I can, amplifying their voices.  That’s why I’ll be wearing black in worship this week at the invitation of Christian leaders and congregations of color to be in solidarity with the message, "Black lives matter."

I trust in the God, in whose image we are all made.  I trust that God is walking with the pray-ers and protesters and who is grieving with those who grieve.  I trust that God’s dream is for a kin-dom in which we are not blind to color but that we see it and value it.  When we are wearing black to proclaim that black lives matter, may we more and more internalize what we proclaim, that God’s dream may be realized.