Tuesday, November 15, 2016

a glimpse of love

The Internet has been filled with hate this week as examples of harassment and discrimination are documented, reported, posted, and shared. And with callous indifference as some Americans deny the veracity of these reports.

Some corners of the world are, however, filled with love. High school students in my county are stepping up with hope-filled chalk graffiti. It was an unexpected joy to ride across the Stafford St. bridge over I-66 today on my bicycle commute. 

When I got to campus, my office looked like this:


The messages extend down the hall:

Keep living love in your corner of the world, beloveds. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

a glimpse of after

The weepy grey outside this morning matches my inside. I am sad at us, America.


Today is the day we acknowledge how splintered our democracy is, but today is not the end. This is when we sit in the brokenness and actually see the pieces and imagine the new things those pieces can become.

Love still wins when we keep choosing love.

Love wins when we listen earnestly enough to hear.

Love wins when we act with compassion and with resolve.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

a glimpse of democracy in action

Usually, 8:30 on a Tuesday morning would find my teacup and me still wearing jammies and reading over professional journal headlines. 

Today we're voting. 

No line outdoors. 

Orderly, fast-moving line inside. 

Twenty-five minutes total. 


a glimpse of calm before

Today is the day we elect a new president. Whomever we choose will be an historic choice, and the world watches with bated breath as the new day dawns. 





Monday, October 24, 2016

generosity

This interview was conducted in lieu of a sermon on Sunday, October 23, 2016 at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) during their Let Your Light Shine Stewardship campaign. This interview has been lightly edited to remove verbal ticks and to firm up sentence structure and add clarity as needed. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website.

Kathleen: We are in the middle of our fall stewardship campaign "Let Your Light Shine," and we thought it might be a good thing to share stories of generosity with each other and for all of the congregation to overhear these stories. So this week and next week we'll be interviewing members of the congregation instead of a more traditional sermon. And this morning it's a joy to welcome Kate.

Kathleen: So, Kate, what brought you to Mt. Olivet?
Kate: Friends brought me to Mt. Olivet. When I moved back to the area with my teenagers about a year and a half ago, I reconnected with some college friends who are long-term members here at Mt. Olivet. It's been a joy to go to church with them, and I've met more friends like you and Amanda and decided that this was a good place to be.

Kathleen: So what makes you stay, besides me being fabulous?
Kate: Well, you're pretty fabulous, so..... One of the big things that makes me stay, actually, is the multigenerational ministry that happens here. We lived in rural Michigan for a long time, and there were a lot of years and more than one church where my kids were the Sunday school. There were no other children, there were no youth for them to look up to. The congregations were aging, so it's nice to be here where there are families and people at lots of points along the spectrum of age, and a robust Sunday school, and confirmation class, and youth group.

Kathleen: So our theme for stewardship is Let Your Light Shine, and when we talked about this question before, we couldn't settle on one ministry or mission of the church that really stands out for you, so what are the missions and ministries of this church that stand out for you, and how do you let your light shine through them.
Kate: The mission of the church that I'm the most excited about is La Cucina, downstairs, the activity that we host in our kitchen. When I first learned about that ministry, I asked some questions and tried to see if there's a way I could get involved, and the answer is really no, so I support La Cucina by staying out of the way: respecting their space in the refrigerator, not messing with their stuff, putting their kitchen things back where they belong when I'm done using them. And also, the funds that I give to Mt. Olivet are undirected, so if La Cucina needs money, then hopefully some of the money I give to Mt. Olivet can go there.
     In terms of the ministry of the church, I really enjoy worshipping with the way. There is a lot about that service that I like, and I let my light shine there through participating. I help with hospitality--in fact before I came up here for this service today, I helped Marsha with the snacks downstairs--and I have preached and offered children's sermons in the way.

Kathleen: We're talking about generosity, and I'm curious: where did you learn generosity?
Kate: I think I learned generosity in the church, particularly in confirmation class when I was thirteen. We talked about the vows we were going to take, that we were pledging to support the United Methodist Church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. And now we've added our witness to that pledge.
     And the church that I grew up in was a rural church in Pennsylvania the size of a one-room school house. While I was a teenager, we were raising the money to build a new building, which was a big stretch. And we started to raise that money three dollars at a time buying cinderblocks for the foundation. Every time we raised another three dollars, one of the women in the church would glue a sugar cube to a model of the foundation of the new building until we had enough money for all the necessary sugar cubes. And then we moved on to studs--they were more expensive than three dollars apiece--but the studs were popsicle sticks. It took years for us to build this sugar cube and popsicle stick model of the church, but at the end of the process, we had the money we needed to actually build the building. And so it was watching the members of this congregation be generous with each other and give beyond their normal giving to do this next thing that taught me a lesson in generosity.
    I also think that generosity begets generosity. When you commit to give and then you practice that commitment, you're like, 'Oh, hey! I can do this! Maybe I can do more.' Giving becomes self-reinforcing.

Kathleen: And how do you personally practice generosity?
Kate: In terms of giving my gifts to the church?
Kathleen: Sure! Or just in your life.
Kate: So a lot of times in a campaign like this and in the church at stewardship time what we're focused on most is the money, which is important, but it's not the only way to practice generosity. There have been times in my adult life where I didn't have a tithe to give to the church. But I was able to sit down with my checkbook and the pile of bills and make decisions about money prayerfully: how am I going to honor my commitments? am I going to have anything left to give financially to the church?
     I also think bigger about the idea of our gifts. The oath we make to the church is not only our money. It's our prayers and our presence. Just showing up is keeping your oath. And our gifts are not just the monetary ones. We can give our time, our talents, all of those things, too.
[I wish I had thought to talk about my support of American University's United Methodist Chaplaincy, the Kay Spiritual Life Center, and Friendly Planet Missiology here.]
Kathleen: Can you tell the offering basket story?
Kate: Oh! The offering basket story.... For a couple of reasons, sometimes in my life, like I said, I haven't always had financial things to give to the church. Sometimes in my life [even when I do have a tithe to give] I just always forget to bring the offering. And now, I give to Mt. Olivet electronically, so I don't have anything to physically put in the basket. The habit that I've gotten into in the past when I didn't have anything to put in the basket was to still touch the offering plate. So, even if I don't have anything to put in it, I hold the offering plate in my hands, and I think about what I'm giving that week. Sometimes it's just I remember that I've given online, and sometimes its that this week I'm giving my time, or this week I'm praying for a congregant, or this week I'm doing some work for the church. Right, so using that moment of the offering plate moving before me to concentrate and think, 'What am I giving this week?'

Kathleen: Do you find that practicing generosity brings wholeness to your life?
Kate: What do you mean by wholeness?
Kathleen: Does practicing generosity make you feel like the person God created you to be?
Kate: Yes. Yeah, I think so. I think generosity isn't wholeness all by itself, but it definitely is an important component--that idea that we are created and called to give as well as receive.

Kathleen: And now the six million dollar question that you and I have spent a lot of time talking about, and I'm really excited for you to share your thoughts with the congregation: What goes through your mind when you look at that pledge card?
Kate: I do not like the pledge cards. Having been the lay leader of a small church, I understand the desire on the part of the church leadership to know. I understand the desire to have numbers, to be able to say, 'In the next year, our congregants are going to give us X amount of dollars.' At the same time, one of the small churches I was involved with in rural Michigan did not do pledge cards because at some time in their past, pledge cards--and arguments about pledge cards--had caused a schism in the church. We didn't have that as a tool, so we looked at our patterns of income and our patterns of expenses over the last year, five years, ten years, and those were the numbers that we used to plan our budget. We were pretty successful at that. Using those numbers worked for us and allowed us to not bring up the hard feelings associated with pledge cards in that congregation.
     As a congregant myself, when I'm faced with a pledge card, I do one of two things: Either I just avoid it, and I never turn it in, and I feel kind of bad because the church asked me to do something, and I didn't. Or, I write down a very low number. That's in part because the pledge card presumes a constancy of income that I haven't experienced in my adult life. Although I know that no one in this church, no one in the office is ever going to chase me down and say, 'You pledged us three hundred dollars this year and you've only given us ten'--that's not going to happen--at the same time if I write something on the pledge card and I sign it and I put it in the offering basket, that feels like a covenant now. It feels like something that I have to do. I am more able to give with a joyful heart if I don't feel that sort of weight associated with the giving. So I would rather not participate in pledge cards.

Behold the pledge card I will not be filling out.
Ironic that it appeared in my mailbox the day after this interview. ;-)
Kathleen: But not participating in the pledge cards doesn't mean that you don't practice generosity.
Kate: Right. Right, I absolutely give. Not using the pledge card doesn't mean not giving. It just means giving consciously and adjusting the gift as the circumstances of my finances and my family's situation change.

Kathleen: I think when we talk about money in the church, sometimes we forget that it's a communal thing. There are those among us who are definitely in the situation to sit down and fill out the pledge card with our graphs and our pie charts and our Excel spreadsheets. Some of us lead different kinds of lives, and it's something that we do together as a community.
Kate: Yeah, it is something that we do together as a community, and I think that the continuation of the use of pledge cards in the Methodist church as a whole is tradition-based. We've done it for a long time, and so we keep doing it, but it doesn't work for all of us.

Kathleen: Is there anything else you would like to share about Mt. Olivet and your time at Mt. Olivet or generosity?
Kate: I'm just really happy to be in a church that has as much variety as Mt. Olivet does. There's a lot that Mt. Olivet has to offer because all of us bring our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness together to the community.

Kathleen: Thank you. Amen and amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

ease

In fashion, ease is a technical term that refers to the relationship between the dimensions of the clothes and the dimensions of the wearer. A garment whose dimensions are designed to be larger than the wearer's dimensions has positive ease, and a garment with dimensions smaller than the wearer's has negative ease. In today's ready-to-wear fashion industry, neutral ease, garment dimensions that exactly match the wearer's is difficult to achieve.

Small differences in ease, on the order of an inch or two can make large differences in the fit and comfort of a garment. Wearing a garment with positive ease when it was designed for negative ease can yield unflattering results. For example, if a person with a petite frame wants an oversized comfy sweater, she can't just buy an extra large size of a sweater that is designed to be form fitting. The shoulders would be too wide, and the waist shaping would fall in the wrong place on her body. If she wants an oversized sweater, she needs to find one that was designed to be oversized on her frame.

Ease is especially important when knitting fitted garments like socks. A sock with positive ease through the instep will slide around on the foot or bunch up and create the potential for blisters. A sock with positive ease through the calf will fall down and look silly.



Knee socks that stay up are a challenge for handknitters precisely because of the issue of ease. The rainbow socks in the picture above are my second attempt at knee socks, and the first successful ones. 



The black and grey striped socks at the right are SmartWool knee socks, which do stay up but unfortunately are really too snug, which is part of what drove me to attempt the craziness of knitting my own. 

My first pair of hand-knit knee socks is the purple and grey ones in the middle of the line-up above. The general guideline for handknitters is to knit socks with 10% negative ease, so the dimensions of the sock are 90% of the dimensions of the wearer's foot. When planning that first pair, I carried this 10% idea all the way up the calf, measuring the circumference of my leg at 1" intervals from ankle to knee, then multiplying each measurement by .90, then knitting to those dimension. When finished knitting, I pulled the socks on and stood up, ready to be proud, and was instead dismayed that they promptly fell down. They would only stay up if held in place by my tall dress boots.

I turned to the forums on Ravelry for research and learned that knee socks need a much greater degree of negative ease to stay up, but not nearly as much custom shaping as I had done. One knitter whose other suggestions about socks had been helpful, suggested at least 3" negative ease for knee socks. Figuring that for an average calf, three inches would be 20-25% negative ease, I decided to try a sock that was 9.5" at its fullest circumference when unstretched. (I should note that my calves are quite large. My feet are hollowed by high arches, my heels are narrow, and my ankles are fine, but my calves are muscular and wide, 16" in circumference at the fullest point.) The rainbow socks were a success! I eventually ripped the purple ones back to the ankle and reknit the calf to look more like the rainbow socks, and they stay up now, too.

The blue socks at the left of the lineup provide a lesson in too much negative ease. They are ribbing through the foot and the lower leg, so they are not nearly as tiny as they appear to be in this picture, and they fit my foot and lower leg. The top cuff, however, has cables, a knitting technique that involves crossing stitches over each other to create texture in the finished fabric. I fell in love with this pattern because of the cables. But while crossing stitches over each other creates fetching designs, it also reduces the elasticity of the knitted fabric, and these cables draw the fabric in so much that they will not go over my calves at all. The socks are in deep time out right now, while they contemplate this offensive behavior on the part of their stitches, and I decide how to modify the pattern. 

Other knitters remark on my knee socks frequently, often because they notice that mine are staying up and their only experience has been as disappointing as my purple and grey ones. So here's how I do it:

I start socks at the toes. This allows the toes and instep to be a swatch, and I can correct any issues of gauge (8-9 sts/in is ideal for socks) and fabric density in this part of the sock before turning the heel, especially if I'm working with a yarn that's new to me. 

To create room for the calf, I work paired increases at the back of the leg every other round for several rounds. Then, at the top of the calf, I work paired decreases to remove one-inch's worth of stitches before switching to smaller needles for the ribbing. 

The whole reason I learned to knit was to make my own socks, and I'm happy with what I've accomplished so far, but I'm continuing to experiment with ease and pattern and shape. An unexpected side effect of this process has been a greater understanding of how garments interact with bodies generally. Ease is not a concept most of us think about when we shop for garments off the rack, but we should.






Sunday, October 9, 2016

Follow the Directions

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, October 9, 2016. The revised common lectionary text for Year C, Proper 28 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost) was 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15 and Luke 17: 11-19

Follow the Directions: Two Passages about Being Healed

The two passages of scripture we heard this morning tell parallel stories, one in the Old Testament book of Second Kings, and one in the New Testament Gospel of Luke. Although there are differences, each story is a case of those who are ill seeking healing. Both Naaman, the Old Testament warrior, and the ten unnamed people in Luke suffered from leprosy, a disease that turned its sufferers into outcasts. Scholars disagree about whether the Biblical-era disease whose name we translate as leprosy is the same disease we know as leprosy today, but whatever disease Naaman and Luke’s ten people had was one that no usual remedy worked on, one that made healthy people shun the sufferers, one that made the sufferers ritually unclean according to Jewish law.
In Luke, the ten lepers recongnize Jesus’ power as he comes into the town. They call to him for help from a distance in deference to the social rules about those suffering from leprosy. They are made clean as they follow his simple instructions to show themselves to the priests.  These lepers follow Jesus’s instructions without question because they have nothing left to lose; living as outcasts, they had already hit rock bottom. They recognize Jesus’ power, they ask for help, and they are  healed.  Hallelujah!
The Old Testament story is more complicated. Naaman comes to Elisha for healing because an Israelite servant girl in his household suggests it. Naaman, a powerful warrioir,  sends a letter asking for help to his weaker neighboring nation because a servant, a female servant, a female Israelite servant suggested it. The letter in itself is an act of humbling. His supplication from a distance, however, is not enough to heal him, and Elisha summons him to come to Israel.
So Naaman goes to Israel expecting  to be heled with pomp and circumstance, expecting an act of healing worthy of his rank and station.  When Elisha gives him the simple instructions to bathe in the river seven times, Naaman is outraged! “What did I come all this way for?” he thinks.
A servant says – and I love this next part – a servant says, “Dude, if he’d asked you to do something difficult, you’d have done it. Why not just bathe in the river?” The servant is right. If Elisha had demanded a feat of strength (moving a giant boulder) or  a feat of endurance (climbing up a mountain and coming down without resting) or delivery of a magical object (three drops of slime from the Great Pink Sea Snail), Naaman would have moved the boulder, climbed the mountain, and found that snail. The simplicity of the instructions to bathe in the River Jordan, a tiny trickle of  river in the desert, seems disproportionate to the magnitude of Naaman’s disease.  Naaman, humbled, follows the directions, and is healed. Naaman and his servant teach us to follow the directions, even when they’re weird.
This is a conversation I have with my students all the time.:
“Dr. Koppy,” they say “what do we have to write?” 
And I say, “Read the description in the syllabus.”
“Dr. Koppy, do we have to print this out and bring it to class?”
“What does the syllabus say?”
“Dr. Koppy, when is the essay thing due?”
“Did you check the syllabus?”
My colleagues and I take great care to lay things out clearly in our syllabi, especially our common syllabus for freshman composition, from which we all teach every semester. The students, somehow, don’t think it can be as simple as reading a piece of paper I’ve already given them. *sigh* They need servants like Naaman’s. They need someone to say to them, “Dude, it’s in the syllabus.”
I shouldn’t snark on my students though. Every senior scholar in my field says the same thing about research writing: Do it every day, write every day even if only for 15 minutes, write every day even if you don’t feel like it. The key to making progress is consistency and repetition. And yet....what do dissertation-writing graduate students and junior scholars like me do?  We procrastinate, we faff off on the Internet, we avoid writing for days and then stay up all night chasing the lightbulb moment that will transform a rough draft into a polished piece. And it does not always come.
We fail to follow the directions.
In both of the stories we heard this morning, the lepers were healed simply by following the directions they were given. Following directions isn’t always such a tidy process. Following the directions, for example, doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to you. Bad things happen to faithful people. Tragedy happens to good people all the time. Bad things happen to people even though they follow the directions.
You’ve all heard the platitude, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Perhaps some of you have even said it. It’s often trotted out in the face of tragedy. People who don’t know what to say to the victim or the victim’s chief mourner’s say this, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and it’s close corrolary ‘God has a reason.’ As someone who has been the chief mourner, I have to say that this is one of the most insidious lies that Christians tell each other.
The Old Testament lesson this morning seems to be supporting this idea. At the end of Naaman’s story, he returns to Elisha and praises God, saying “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” A tidy interpretation would be to say that Naaman got leprosy in order to bring him to Israel so that he could see God’s power. It’s tempting somethimes to think this way.
Here’s why that lie is so bad: If we believe that God protects the truly faithful, then those to whom bad things happen must not be truly faithful. Our reality, though, is that tragedy strikes good people, faithful people, devout people every single day. Church membership does not come with a ‘get out of tragedy free’ card.
On NPR last week, I heard a Story Corps interview with TerriRoberts, the mother of the man who shocked the world ten years ago this month when he barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and started shooting, “killing 5 girls, wouding the others, and committing suicide.” The Amish community shocked the world when they forgave the man and embraced his parents. Roberts talks about the Amish families who came to the private funeral for her son and surrounded the family in a crescent that emanated love. She also talks about her ongoing relationship with the victim’s families, including acting as a part-time caregiver for one girl who was profoundly disabled by her injuries. Roberts reports that one of the Amish fathers told her “None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it … you can’t put a price on that.”
All of the families connected to this situation experienced tragedy that day. The family of the shooter might have become outcasts in their own community, made  unclean by their association with a person who would kill children in their school. The Amish community, however, followed directions. They chose to turn the other cheek, to love the people who some might see as their enemies, to forgive.
In the end of today’s Gospel story, Jesus expresses surprise that only one of the nine lepers came back to praise God after being healed. Now, you might be thinking that returning to offer praise was not part of the directions. Jesus said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He did not say, “then come back here and offer praise.” Jesus probably thought he didn’t have to. Praising God is in the syllabus. Over an over, the Old Testament scriptures instruct the faithful to praise God. The lectionary offered two different Psalms of praise that we are not reading this morning, but our music has filled that role for us. The first two songs we sang this morning were full of praise. Jesus expected the lepers to know that they should offer praise for their healing, and he expresses shock that only the foreigner among them does so. Jesus tells this man that his faithfulness, his following directions, has made him well. Not just healed, but well.

Following directions is not a spell that protects us from harm. God does not promise us invincibility. The thing about the directions, though, is they make us resilient. The platitude that says everything happens for a reason has it backwards.  It is our work as Christians, not God’s work, to make meaning from the broken situations in which we find ourselves. The connection we forge with God when we follow the directions changes our perspectives. It makes us bend like the grass and not fall over like the trees when hurricane force winds overtake us.