Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Happy Birthday Church - a zine

A couple of years ago, during COVID, I made a little zine that I shared in care packages with church kids. I think it still stands up. And I think it's a helpful way of telling the story of Pentecost. Happy birthday, Church!

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Book Review: The Birchbark House series

The Birchbark House series
by Barbara Erdrich

It has long been my practice to center people of color and women in my own fiction reading. When I'm picking out books to read with my kids I've been less discriminating. I wouldn't read something overtly racist or sexist, but if reading Captain Underpants is what's going to get my kid interested in books, then I'll put up with a certain level of literal potty humor. But I do try a little, and ooh baby, do I have a recommendation for you. And by the way, even if you don't have elementary aged kiddos at the moment, I would have enjoyed these books simply for my own pleasure, so take a look!

I'd known and loved Louise Erdrich's work for a long time, two of my particular favorites being The Sentence and Future Home of the Living God. And I'd known that she had a series for kids but until I had a kid the right age, I wasn't motivated to take a look. I now really, really wish I'd read these much earlier. And I especially wish I'd had these books when I was a child and very into Little House on the Prairie.

Like the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, these books are set in the mid 1800s - though slightly earlier) and they take a journey through the Midwest - though more northerly. Unlike the Little House series, which depict indigenous people as savages to be feared and white settlers as pioneers and adventurers, the stories are rooted with Anishinaabe children and their families. They start at the western tip of Lake Superior and by the second generation have migrated west to the northern Dakota territory.

There are many of things I loved about these books. First, the window into what family life in indigenous communities looked like almost two centuries ago. The way life was tied to the seasons: rooted in one camp for spring and summer where they were close to maple sugaring trees and the garden and in another place in the winter and fall, where there was wild rice to be harvested and a place to cache food for the cold months. The way siblings across time and in all places tease and squabble and love each other. The work and play that buoyed life together, first in the woods among the birches, and then on the sweeping prairie, where camps follow the buffalo.

I loved the integration of Ojibway words and phrases - sometimes with meanings made explicit and sometimes you needed to figure out from context clues. The main character Omakayas told her annoying little brother, "Gego, Pinch!" (stop it, Pinch!) so often that I heard Orie repeating it to himself in the days following those chapters. Erdrich provides a glossary at the end of each book, but I found that we didn't need to consult it.

I also loved and was heartbroken by the unflinching approach to illness, death and conflict. These families experience starvation, small pox and forced migration. They endure tragedies and you mourn with them when loved ones are lost, experience their fear and despair during a kidnaping, rage when they are cheated and their belongings are stolen. But we also experience the deep love of family connection, the joy of sneaking a taste of maple sugar or learning to ride a horse for the first time, the triumph of stealing an eagle's feathers and the exhilaration of canoeing churning rapids.

There were times while Orie and I were reading these books when I did need to stop and check if he understood what was going on. Sometimes the storyline and situations are complicated. And they are often told from a child's perspective, when the child him or herself doesn't necessarily understand what's happening. These times were often when the families in the story encountered white people whose habits, language and ways were unfamiliar. For example, when Chickadee, one of Omakayas' twin sons is 'rescued' by a wagon full of women wearing long grey gowns with funny cloths on their heads and a man with a black robe they call 'Father.' They take Chickadee to a building where they try to cut off his braids and take his warm rabbit fur clothing before he escapes.

It was clear to me in that scenario that a priest and some nuns took Chickadee and that they wanted to 'civilize' him. But that wasn't clear to Chickadee and it wasn't clear to Orie, though it did start a conversation about they way the church treated indigenous children. Erdrich's depiction of white folks doesn't make them all into villains. In her stories both white and Anishnaabe people are good and kind, sneaky and terrible. But she does make clear that the incursion of settlement on indigenous territory is changing their way of life in a way that is difficult and sorrowful.

These books are just so nuanced and beautiful. The characters have so much life and personality. You can find them at the public library in every format. And of course, I support buying from local bookstores (Each book is only seven or eight dollars at Third Place). I read one in hard copy, listened to at least one audio book and read several on my e-reader. They are excellent in all the ways, but if you do read instead of listen, you'll also have access to Erdrich's soft pencil-drawn maps and illustrations. I love a book with a map!

If you or your kids do read them, I hope you'll tell me what you think because I could talk about them all day!

Pokemon and Jesus

There are somethings I know way more about after becoming a parent than I ever would have guessed I would know about. And I'm not talking about how to change diapers or help with math homework. I'm taking about things like names of dinosaurs for every letter of the alphabet, the backstories of obscure Marvel superheroes or why the My Little Ponies each have a 'cutie mark' on their butt.

I also know a little something about Pokémon. Now, of all the kid pop-culture things that I know about, Pokémon is actually sort of low on the list. But I didn't know anything about it before kids. And as I was reflecting on the relationship between God and God's people this past week, my mind made a Pokémon connection.

When Mary receives the news that she is going to be the partner to God in bringing Jesus into the world, she proclaims God's favor. When Jesus announces the beginning of his ministry, he too proclaims God's favor. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah her says, "God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison - to proclaim the year of our God's favor."

The thing about being favored is, you might think that it's about getting lucky. And for sure, the people who are being release from captivity probably do feel pretty lucky. But really, the thing or person that's the favorite, is the thing that you keep going back to again and again. Your favorite shirt is the one that you're always happy to pull out of the clean laundry. Your favorite ice cream is your default because you know for sure you won't be disappointed. The teacher's pet (ie. favorite) is the one who always gets called on.

Here's the Pokémon connection. Pikachu is Ash's favorite. (Isn't he everyone's?) For those who aren't familiar, Ash is Pikachu's trainer. Each trainer works together with their Pokémon to battle with other trainers and their Pokémon. Even though Ash has others, Pikachu is the one he always calls on: "Pikachu," he famously declares, "I choose you!"

It's not just Mary and not just Jesus who are God's favored ones. They are part of a favored people and we too are each God's favorites. "I choose you!" God is saying to us even now. What is our response? Obviously not battling our beings with our phenomenal lightening powers. The clue is in Mary's song and Jesus' proclamation. Being God's favored ones means entering the training to bring release to the captive, food to the hungry, lifting up the lowly. Being God's favorite doesn't mean the easy life, but it does mean that God will continue to call on and choose us to be God's own.

All of this might just go to show that a pastor can bring anything back around to Jesus. But may you never see Pikachu the same way again.

The Radical Origins of Mother's Day

As much as I love brunch, bouquets of spring flowers and cards with adorable hand-prints on them, these were not the intended outcome of Mother's Day when it was first suggested. The origins of this day fall to abolitionist, suffragist, author and total boss in petticoats, Julia Ward Howe, who was herself a mother of six. Ward Howe wrote her "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870 as a call for mothers of all nations to join in a council of peace, never again to see their sons and husbands lost to the violence and destruction of war.

Ward Howe had not always been a pacifist. In fact she authored the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic to champion the fight for freedom of enslaved people. But after witnessing the carnage and chaos of the Civil War, her political activities began to include anti-war activism as well as the campaign for suffrage for women and the formerly enslaved.

Here is Ward Howe's proclamation in full. It is still full of fire and passion. I dare you not to be roused!

“Arise, then… women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage,
for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: Disarm, Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
nor violence vindicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
at the summons of war,
let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means
whereby the great human family can live in peace,
each bearing after [their] own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask
that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality,
may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient,
and at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
to promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
the amicable settlement of international questions,
the great and general interests of peace.“

~ Julia Ward Howe

Thursday, December 01, 2022

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

This week many of you are preparing to film scenes for our video Christmas pageant. Maybe it was because I've been coordinating this year's pageant project that I picked up our old copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. I wasn't sure if it would be as great as I remember from when I was Orie's age. But folks, it holds up!
It is seven-year-old approved. It is so fun to read out loud and to giggle together at the antics of the Herman herd. (And so much better than reading Capatain Underpants again). The Herdman kids are known in their town for being bullies and agents of chaos. One Sunday the five siblings show up at church because they've been told that there'll be cake. Much to everyone's dismay they also all volunteer to be in the Christmas pageant. There's only one problem: they've never even heard the Christmas story. This fish-out-of-water situation leads to comedy and also to some eye-opening insight into a familiar Biblical story.

There is so much to love about this book. Above all, I love that it's so silly but still takes its characters and the story seriously. Orie keeps talking about how Imogene thinks Bill would have been a much better name than Jesus for Mary's baby.

I love both the questions and the pronouncements made by the Herdmans as they discover the Christmas story for the first time. They "wanted a bloody end to Herod, worried about Mary giving birth in a barn and called the wise men were a bunch of dirty spies."

I love all the characters, even prissy Alice Wendelken, who thinks she should have gotten the part of Mary but is too scared of Imogene to put up her hand, so instead she's taking notes of all the sins the Hermans are committing so she can tattle.

I love the way the haters are put in their place. The mom who's making the best of being stuck with leading the pageant shows up the stuck-up church ladies who think the Hermans will ruin everything. She determines that this pageant whiche everyone thinks will fail will be the best Christmas Pageant ever. And it is!

There are only a couple of asterisks I would put on my very hearty recommendation. I skipped over a couple of fat-phobic paragraphs of bullying by the Herdmans in the first chapter. And I was annoyed at the multiple mentions of a dad who's resigned to the fact that dinner's never ready for him because the mom is spending so much time working on the pageant. I mean, maybe you could make her dinner, buddy. She's got a lot on her plate. If they ever do an updated edition, these would be super things to fix.

For me, those small details aren't worth leaving the book on the shelf. I hope you read it and tell me what you love about it. And I hope you come to church on the 18th to see our own kids and families in our non-traditional but still great Christmas Pageant.

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

I Object: Saying No to Violence and War

As I was putting the finishing touches on the outline for the youth workshop on militarism and non-violence, I heard about the fatal shooting at Ingraham High School. Two beloved members of our community were in the building. Several of our families over the years have had students at Ingraham. Many of our faith family live in the neighborhood. A student was killed by another student.
I'm sure you, like me, had the sinking, awful, scared, not-again feeling in your guts. Maybe you, like me, shed tears of grief and rage. Grief that young people continue to be endangered by their own peers with firearms, grief at the loss of life and devastation to a family, grief for the students and staff traumatized by witnessing this event, and others who will not know how to walk back into this place that has been violated, grief for the hearts of the young persons who turn to lethal violence, and absolute rage at a system and government and nation whose obsession with militarism and individual freedom continues to cause these griefs.

Everything - EVERYTHING - that Jesus taught and lived was an embodied objection to the militaristic and violent practices of empire. He grieved and got angry about it too! And yet he even rejected the violence of those whose anger let them to rebel against their oppressors with force. We, his followers, are called to raise our voices in objection as he did.

It's one of the reasons that I feel like the crash course I'm offering for youth on conscientious object is still relevant, even though it's been literal decades since young people have been called up by military draft. It's all connected. The same individualistic, militaristic culture that spends half its discretionary budget on "defense" is the culture which infects the hearts and minds of people - young and old - such that they wield a gun against a fellow human.

This morning after election day I am absorbing the news with some relief that the "red wave" has not been as overwhelming as some predicted. But democrats are not going to save us from gun violence. They are not going to save us from militarism. We can, though continue to object. To cry out. To learn to articulate our opposition to violence that is rooted in the call of Jesus and modeled on the action of Jesus.

It is extremely unlikely that any of our youth will encounter a draft board, challenging their stance on war and violence. Even so, I want them to be able to articulate their understandings of war and violence and to demonstrate that they come from a community of faith that supports them when they choose peace. That's why one of the concluding activities of the crash course is to complete a "Peacemaker Registration." It asks them how they've come to their beliefs and to "explain what most clearly shows that your beliefs are deeply held. You may wish to include a description of how your beliefs affect the way you live."

In some ways this last question should convict us all, the grown-ups in the room, for how we live should be rooted in our own deeply held beliefs about the image of God in all humans and all of creation and our commitment to follow Jesus in the way of peace. We are the models for our children. So I am even more determined to object. To keep objecting. And to let this little class be one among many ways that I affirm love over death.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Remembering Our Saints

As a kid, this time of year was only and all about Halloween. Not only was there a mountain of candy and dressing up on the day, but there's a season of anticipation - of coming up with and preparing an original and creative costume. There was also was a party at school, including a parade through the classrooms.
In my school some of the Christian families didn’t allow their children to participate in school Halloween festivities because the holiday was viewed as non-Christian, even anti-Christian and devilish. But of course, Halloween's origins are in the church. (Or course, the church papered over even older pagan holidays, but that's another story).

All Hallows Eve is the evening before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day, the day to remember those saints who have been witnesses to God’s reign in times past. On this day and on All Souls Day which follows, we have an opportunity to intentionally remember those we have lost and the faithful ‘saints’ who have gone before us.

This means the people who we read about in scripture - like Naomi and Ruth pictured above, and whose story we'll hear on Sunday - but it also means in our own lives and histories. Who do we remember from the past and what ‘saints’ are still with us? Who are the family members and beloved of God who have been and are faithful witnesses to God’s reign?

Recently, when asked his name by a teacher, Orie gave it and then continued proudly, "I was named for my great grandpa." He knows that because we've told the story of his great-grandpa Orie Conrad, who refused to don a uniform when conscripted in the 1st World War even though conscientious objection was not yet a legal option. He suffered for it at the hands of his fellow conscripts and was ultimately jailed for a time but remained steadfast in his conviction to follow Jesus' way of peace.

In our family we also remember and tell the stories of Joe’s grandpa and my own who did alternative service as conscientious objectors during the 2nd World War; my grandpa served in the Forestry Service in Canada and Joe’s was a smoke jumper in western Montana. Naomi recently interviewed her grandparents - my parents - for a school project, to learn about their terms with Mennonite Central Committee. In our families, these stories that witness to the way of Jesus – serving the community and eschewing violence – are reminders of how we are still called to follow Christ’s example.

This Sunday in worship we'll all have the opportunity to reflect on the stories of our saints - those living and those no longer among us. As we worship, we'll be engaging the idea of saints in multiple ways: through music and scripture, of course, but also by listening to each other and telling our stories and learning about and creating some saintly iconography. We will worship and create and celebrate our saints around tables in the sanctuary, so prepare for a setup that's a little different this Sunday!

May our saints continue to guide us in the way of Jesus. And may we each be saints who show the way for others.
image: Naomi and Ruth by Kelly Latimore