Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ministry of De-Escalation

Like much of the nation, I've been pondering the situation of Sandra Bland and what happened in Texas.  The story which started me down this road was the one broadcast by NPR's Morning Edition, where an analyst listens to the recording of what happened at the side of the road where Bland was first pulled over.

The analyst points out several times where different decisions could have been made by both Bland and the state trooper.  But for reasons that may never be fully clear, they both decided to escalate.

In the national conversation that I've seen, we focus on police-community relations, but I'm willing to bet there are many workplace situations where we see similar decisions to escalate.  Even if these incidents don't result in death, they still result in a society where people are distrustful and angry.

I think about my own workplace, where I often see angry, angry students.  I try to calm them down, and I try to ascertain what's brought them to me.  I know it's nothing good--people don't make a special effort to go to a department head to report on the great job that a faculty member is doing.

I try to remember to smile, but in a sympathetic not a condescending way.  I try to listen.  I try to explain what the situation might look like from a faculty point of view, but I try to do this without making students feel that their concerns have been dismissed.

Often, I can't fix the situation.  They come too late with too much work remaining undone.  But I try to keep the situation from escalating.  Students and their parents are all too ready to go to the upper levels of management or to the press or to bring in lawyers.  And even if there's no case, I would prefer we not go down those roads.

I've spent time lately thinking about ministries and how we see our ministry.  I've wondered how our nation might change if we saw our ministry as being one of reconciliation. 

One way to do that might be to seize opportunities to de-escalate situations.  People can't be reconciled when everyone is vibrating with anger.

I can't make everyone's anger vanish, but if I keep my anger and frustration tamped down, I've taken a giant leap towards de-escalation.  If only more people could do so.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Living in Community

In a variety of places, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to live in community.  It might be easier if we only had to sit two by two, making community in pairs.

 Maybe we could fit three people into our community, side by side, on a bench. 

Some days, I think that three is one too many.

Some days, I want to be in community with only myself.

But we are called to greater community.

And from these connections, a community to the even larger world, a way to minister.

And eventually, we will join the largest community of all. 

Let that be the spur that helps us to connect on this side of the grave.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dreams and Visions

Rachel Barenblat has an intriguing post on Jewish thoughts about what happens while we sleep:  "The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning."

I've been haunted by my dreams.  One night I dreamed I was pregnant.  It was June, and I was due in July, but I wasn't very big.  I was thinking of all the things I should be doing to get ready to leave work:  getting the Fall schedule ready, hiring adjuncts, straightening my office.  I was walking to my car across a campus that isn't mine, and I had to pick my way carefully across a construction site.  The school campus was just a wreck.

The night before that dream, I dreamed I was trying to walk safely away from a highway.  I could see the lovely neighborhood with cafes and bookstores where I needed to be, but I was kept from getting there by overpasses and chain link fences and whizzing traffic.

If I was a character in a book dreaming such things, you'd lob criticism at the writer for being so obvious.  I woke up thinking that my subconscious was not being very original.

Am I longing to be pregnant?  No--but I do wish to be incubating something new.  Do I know how to get there?  No.  I have glimmerings, but I can't quite figure out the way from here to there.

And yet, my dreams were hopeful.  In my pregnancy dream, I had just come back from a well-baby pregnancy check up with good news that my yet-to-be-born baby was fine.  In the highway dream, I was able to hop over guard rails to avoid traffic.

Like I said, my dreaming brain may not be very original.  But maybe my dreaming brain worried that if it sent me subtle dreams, I'd miss the meaning.  Maybe my brain decided to be blaringly obvious.

I'm grateful to my dreaming brain.

And the theologian part of me thinks of the God who speaks to humans in dreams and visions.  If my recent dreams have been communications from God, I'm grateful.  They're not quite as obvious as some of the dreams in the holy texts:  no voice saying, "Get up and leave now before the evil dictator arrives."  I'm grateful for that too.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Poetry Saturday: Missing the Demons

I spent some time this week thinking about Mary Magdalene as her feast day came and went.  It's not the first time.  In this post, I come back to these thoughts:  "I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship.  I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been.  I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over."

I've played with these ideas before.  I've written several versions of a poem that imagines the demons of Mary Magdalene.  Here's the latest one:

The Fifth Demon

You moderns read about my demon
possession, and you think of The Exorcist:
gravel voices out of the mouths of schoolgirls,
mouths that spew gobs of green goo.

I tell you, it wasn’t like that. Each demon
had a unique personality, a tone
that only I could recognize. In the night,
the hiss of their suggestions soothed
me into sleep. By day, their constant
criticisms and complaints proved motivation.

And then I met Jesus. His voice
filled my head and crowded out the demons.
His stories left me slightly dizzy,
like I had spent weeks sleeping
on a sailing ship and returned to land.

I miss the fifth demon most.
I lost them, and then I lost
him, and now I have only the tomb
of my empty mind.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Nuns in the Neighborhood

Last night as I drove home, I noticed a nun walking down my block.  I decided this was the chance I had been waiting for.

I know that we have a large house where nuns live--it's 7 blocks from my house.  Occasionally I see a nun in the bank or the grocery store, but rarely do I see them on my block. 

I've wanted to know more about them, but it seems invasive to just pull in the driveway and knock on the door--although their house looks more like a building at a retreat center than a regular house. 

So, when I saw the nun walking down my street, I waved and walked towards her.  I introduced myself and said I'd been wondering about them.

The nun told me that they're an order of nuns from Nigeria.  I didn't quite catch the name:  Sisters of Mary of  ________.  She told me that they're an order devoted to the idea of giving love to all.  Seems like a sound, though broad, mission statement to me.  She told me I could come to their home anytime, after I said I had wanted to drop in to find out more about them.

They are nuns who wear headdresses, but I didn't ask about that.  They all seem to have the same basic dress, but they wear differing shades of lavender and purple, which I'm guessing signifies the type of vows they have taken.

It was a charming encounter--and to be honest, a bit surreal--a lovely way to end the day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Feast Days of Mary Magdalene and Martha, the sister of Mary

I have written about Mary Magdalene and Martha, the sister of Mary the less busy sister, before, several times and in several places.  This year, I decided to see if I made any new connections if I looked at them at the same time.

The piece I wrote is up at the Living Lutheran site, and now is a perfect time to read it, in between the feast days that celebrate both women (July 22 for Mary Magdalene and July 29 for Martha the sister of Mary).

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Martha, the sister of Mary, is not seen as possessed by demons. But in many ways, her demons seem much more typical of modern life."

"Jesus tells Martha that she’s worried about many things, and in his admonishment, I hear a lesson for us today. Jesus implies that the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It’s a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again – maybe every day."

"It’s in the life of Mary Magdalene that I get a hint of what I need to do to diminish my modern demons of anxiety and busyness and hurry, hurry, hurry. Go back to the Easter morning story in the Gospel of John. It's Mary who stays behind to grieve, while the male disciples are running off to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do. It's because she stays behind to rest and to grieve that she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord."

"Paradoxically, the story of Mary Magdalene reminds us not only to rest but to stay alert. If Mary had used one of our modern ways to dull her grief, like drinking or sleeping or tackling the never-ending list of household chores, she might have missed the risen Jesus. But because she slows down to sit with her grief, to be fully present to her less comfortable emotions, she is also able to be fully present to the Divine who moves through the world."

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 26, 2015:

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 11:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 145:10-19 (Psalm 145:10-18 )

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 14

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21

Gospel: John 6:1-21

It's sobering to realize that even in a land of abundance like ours, hunger is a real problem. Most of us, even if we haven't experienced food scarcity ourselves, are only a generation or two removed from it. 

And even if we haven't experienced food scarcity, we've experienced that scarcity consciousness. Most of us don't operate out of a place of abundance. We have our little piece, and we clench onto it. We're not open to the grace of God's expansive love. Unlike that little boy who shared his lunch, we hold tight to whatever little shares of the good life we've claimed for ourselves.

Or worse, maybe we're like the disciples, who are so focused on the numbers that they aren't very open to the possibilities Jesus offers. I'm often like that. I get so focused on the way that I would solve a problem that I'm not open to other solutions. Worse, I get so focused on the way the world would solve problems that I forget that I'm worshipping a revolutionary God that doesn't need to be tied down by the ways we've always done things, by the accountant's ledger.

We have not one but two miracles.  Jesus makes the food stretch--everyone has enough AND there are leftovers. Like the people who were there, I find myself thinking, "Now there's a God I want to get to know." Then, we have the miracle of Jesus walking on the water.

I was also struck by verse 15: "Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  It's another reminder that Jesus isn't interested in this kind of worldly power. Jesus came to model for us the Kingdom of God, starting here, starting now--not some distant time after we're dead, or some distant time when God comes again into the world. Here and now. What would that world look like, if we could fully realize the transformation? Jesus points the way.

So, what does this passage tell us about Kingdom living? It's not about power. We're not preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, and gathering together so that we can consolidate power and win elections and do whatever we want. Again and again, Jesus rejects that model.

The Gospel reminds us of what Jesus can do--but first we must be open. We can't be hamstrung in our imaginations. We have to remember that we've thrown in our lot with a God that wants to transform the world so that everybody has enough and that there's enough for the next day.

The first step towards that reality is to share. When we share, we're less clenched about our possessions, and it's easier for God to do the transforming work for which we all yearn. When we share, we short-circuit our imaginations, which are busy envisioning the worst (we'll be poor, we'll have to eat grass, we'll run out of money before the end of the month, our children will have to wear clothes that we find in the dump--on and on our gerbil minds whirl around).

No, God has promised that we will be provided for. Again and again, God tells us that there will be enough. We can rely on God. We can share our lunches, confident in the knowledge that there will be more, there will be plenty, there will be leftovers. We can share our lunches, knowing that we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity.