Showing posts with label vulnerability. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vulnerability. Show all posts

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Suffering and Joy

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. The revised common lectionary text for Year a, Proper 6 (Second Sunday after Pentecost) was Psalm 100 and Romans 5: 1-8. An audio recording is available on Mt. Olivet's website

Often in the American church in the twenty-first century, we focus on the call to praise, like the one we heard in Psalm 100 this morning. Many churches, many evangelists, many congregations spread the message that life in Christ is a happy life. That if you just believe with faith the size of a mustard seed, your life will be good. Have you seen this message? I have. And it annoys the crap out of me.
            Although we are called to praise, God does not promise us a good life. In fact, in the revised common lectionary Gospel lesson, which I did not ask our liturgist to read this moring, God promises the disciples hardship as they go out into the world. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves [....] Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Not a happy clappy life in Christ. It’s an odd thing that the lectionary does here, putting the praise of Psalm 100 side by side with this warning about hardship to come in the ministry.
In the church, we don’t talk enough about the fact that suffering is part of life. It is the shadow side of our knowledge and our free will. In fact, the presence of suffering in human life is one of the few things that most world religions agree on. (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism). I admire that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism put this idea first: “All life is suffering, pain.”
Our reality is that we live in a broken world, and this brokenness is visible at all levels. In our personal lives we experience the grief and loss, illness, and poverty. In our communities, we experience systemic racism and bigotry toward minority groups on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, faith, ability, and ethnicity. American politics have never been more divided, and this week, in our community, political disagreement became physical violence. If we look further afield, we can see large-scale, ongoing armed conlfict that destroys communities just like ours and turns people just like us into refugees. Indeed, the very planet under our feet is broken. Global climate change is disrupting the natural systems that life on this planet depends on. All of this brokenness fills our newscasts, and it we share it on social media. We see five people shot in Alexandria, and hundreds affected by the fire in London, and thousands in Syria or in Iraq wondering when the next air strikes will come. We see all this brokenness, and we are overwhelemed. 
We are not very good at dealing with suffering. And I think we get it wrong in two ways: Either we turn away entirely, refusing to acknowledge the suffering that is there in our own lives or in the lives of our communities; OR, we try to rush through the brokenness.
Let’s start with the way that we refuse to acknowledge suffering and brokenness. When you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk says, “Hi, how are you?” What is the correct answer? “Good,” or “Fine.” This is a ritual that we each participate in dozens of times a day with coworkers, with bosses, with neighbors, with friends, with customer service personnel. Although the question in the ritual asks how we are, we’re actually not allowed to say anything other than “good” or “fine.” Don’t believe me? Break the rules this week. Tell someone you’re wonderful, or tired, or that you have a headache, or that you are overwhelmed by the brokennes of the environment. I will lay odds that the reaction you get is discomfort. Giving any answer other than the expected one in this ritual communication is just not done.
            Now sometimes, the people close to us actually do want to know how we’re doing. When the question goes beyond participation in the ritual to express actual concern, it sounds different, “how are you?” “how are you, really?” In this case, the person asking the question will make eye contact and lean toward you.
This “how are you ritual” might seem like a small thing, but I would argue that its ubiquity in American life, and the rigidity of the requirement that we respond to the question with a positive answer are evidence of the way we focus relentlessly on the positive. We publicly affirm that we are good and fine even when we are not, and when we get home, we distract ourselves with the many media available to us on our variety of devices, , with food and medication, with alcohol and drugs.
            The other way that we get it wrong is by rushing through suffering.  Romans 5:3-4 tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Passages like this one, lead us to platitudes like “every cloud has a silver lining” and “God has a reason” and “God does not give you more than you can bear.”
While I think that these platitudes point to an important truth—that living through tragedy changes us in profound ways—our eagerness to emphasize the reasons and the silver linings lead us to rush through the suffering in unhealthy ways. We need to slow down. We need to recognize that we are in the moment of suffering and let it be okay that we are not good. We need to take the time to actually feel our feelings.
In my experience, there will be a lot of feelings. Not only the sadness and pain of the event that caused our suffering, but also uncertainty, and fear about that uncertainty, and doubt and confusion. It is not easy to let ourselves feel these feeling. But you’ll notice that Romans doesn’t jump straight from suffering to hope. The intermediaries are endurance and character.  Sitting with our feelings long enough to recognize them and name them is an important step.
I have a couple of disclaimers. What I have said here is not a call to tolerate abuse or ongoing trauma. If you are in a relationship that is causing you ongoing harm, get help and get out safely. Reach out to the staff of Mt. Olivet, reach out to someone you trust. Reach. Out. This is also not a call to inflict pain upon ourselves in the ways that some in the history of Christianity have done. No self-flaggelation, no hair shirts, no beds of nails for us. We encounter sufficient suffering in our daily lives without seeking it out or inventing it.
Suffering is not a contest. We should not cry matyr to show that our own suffering is the worst, but neither should we minimize our own experience because someone else has greater suffering.
Each of us reacts to the suffering in our lives and in our world differently. And the process of moving from suffereing to endurance to character to hope is not a linear one. There are setbacks and delays and repetitions. It can take months or even years. In the mean time, though, life goes on. Even as we are learning to live with suffering, there will also be moments in our lives worthy of celebration.
And this, I think, is the greatest challenge: holding in tension the awareness that our broken world is full of suffering and the conviction that this same world is also beautiful and worthy of celebration. I’ve noticed this coming to a head lately in activist spaces on social media. One member of the community will say to another, “How can you care about new bike lanes when children are dying in the streets?” This question presumes that suffering and celebration are a zero-sum game, that we can only be engaged in one at a time. By this logic, if we are in a state of grief or trauma or brokenness, life can only be sad and dark and unhappy.
When I was widowed four years ago, I chose to wear black. That fast from color was a reminder to myself to slow down and make space for the pain and doubt and confusion. It was important to me at that time that my outward appearance reflect the dark wilderness that I felt like I was navigating, and I kept choosing black for about six months. In the early days especially,  I remember seeing shock, and sometimes judgement, on other people’s faces when they saw me laughing and smiling. As with the “how are you” ritual that expects only a positive answer, there was an expectiation that I as a widow wearing black would be perpetually sad and weepy.
Life is not just one way though, it never is. We can make space for the experience of suffering alongside our celebration. We can welcome it to the table as a ligitimate element of our experience of this earthly life.
I’m asking you today to pay more attention to the suffering in your own life, in the life of your community, and in the world, but I don’t want you to wallow in it or be incapacitated by its magnitude. Recognize that in our broken world, suffering exists alongside joy. And recognize that God is present with us equally in suffering and in joy.
When we are able to do this, when we recognize that suffering is a part of life that we should experience rather than one to escape, when we are able to be aware of both suffering and joy at the same time, it changes the way we relate to suffering in our own life  and in the lives of others. Often when we encounter suffering in the life of someone we are close to, we jump into fixing mode. We offer solutions, we reach for the platitudes and start naming the potential silver linings of the dark clouds. While I am a strong proponent of the idea that good things can come from bad things, I also know that this mental leap is one that the suffering person needs to make in their own time. As people giving moral support we need to be able to say, “This is awful. I am sorry you are going through this. I am here to listen.” And we need to stop there, before we start solutioneering.
It also changes the way we pray. Rather than praying, “Lord, make it stop,” we can pray, “God, be with us. God, help us see. God, give us strength.” Amen.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

guessing wrong

Turning thirty-five felt like a major milestone. I had only just been widowed, and it felt like I had lived the events of an entire lifetime in but half of my threescore and ten. I felt like I had done everything, and I wasn't sure what was left.

And then I realized that I had the opportunity to make all the choices of adulthood anew. To begin again.

In some ways this has been incredibly frightening. When I made these decisions the first time, I had only myself to think about. Now, I am responsible for children and pets and debt and an estate. Now, I have lost my sense of invincibility.

The privilege of being the spouse who lived carries with it a burden to get things right, an irrational sense that choosing wrong dishonors the dead. (Reader, I can hear the platitude you're thinking. Just stop. Do not type it in the comments.) The irrationality does not make the burden any less real.

In a post in January Mike at Internet Monk meditated on a brief passage from Thomas Merton that has been rolling around in my head since then:
Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle, which we must solve in one guess or else perish. Some people find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong. It takes them a long time to find out that they are happier that way.
As I make decisions for my second life, the roads not taken in my first life have loomed large. Should I have chosen them then? Are they still available to me? Should I choose them now? What if I choose wrong again?

And yet, the vaporizing of my old life that came with widowhood, the instantaneous disappearance of my marriage, the release of the moorings that held me at Rambling Farmhouse showed me that any decision I make can be unmade by circumstance. Even decisions that felt permanent when I made them have been undone, and that undoing did not ruin me.

As I make decisions now, I might guess wrong.

I might choose wrong, and that's okay.

Even decisions that are wrong, even decisions that are right and then are undone, are worthwhile.

I can go through life guessing wrong, and knowing that even permanent decisions are not actually, and still be happy.



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

loneliness

I realized this past winter, that I am chronically lonely. Even when I am with friends, I am lonely. Even when I am joyful, I am lonely. It's like having a mild chronic illness along the lines of well-controlled asthma or surgically-corrected strabismus. For some periods of time, it's latent, and then it makes itself known again.

I get tired of being the odd numbered wheel.

My friends are wonderful and welcoming, but the vast majority of them are coupled, and being the third, the fifth, or the seventh at the table gets old. Excellent, wide ranging, adult conversation does not change the fact that when we all stand up, they are going home in pairs, and I am going home alone.

Because I have recently moved, I've been meeting lots of new people, and I have become fascinated by third fingers on left hands. Even in places where I tend to meet people separately from their partners, as at church and at work, the majority of my peers are similarly coupled.

There is a particular kind of loneliness in being a widow surrounded by couples.

There is also a particular kind of loneliness in being the adult in a household with teenagers.

My teenagers are good kids, and they have learned to bear greater responsibility for themselves than many of their peers are asked to, but their inherent adolescent selfishness means that the emotional labor of noticing that the animals need care and that the sinks need scrubbing is my burden. No amount of reasoned conversation followed by pleading followed by screaming followed by profanity has changed this.

This is the loneliness that comes of not being heard.

I get tired of being a broken record.

I don't dislike my own company, and I don't feel that I am an incomplete person as a single person. In fact, there are times that I quite enjoy making decisions without having to consult another person. Nonetheless, loneliness is part of my life. And I imagine in this I am not alone.


Monday, March 20, 2017

other people's books

The books toward which my hands are drawn in libraries and bookstores are all variations on the fairytale structure: overt retellings, nineteenth-century comedies of manners, high fantasy, so-called chick-lit. While there's nothing wrong with this generally, these categories all tend to feature romance and end as do comedies, with weddings filling the stage. And since my life is decidedly lacking in romance lately, reading only these sorts of books is less than great for my mental health.

I still don't like mysteries, westerns, or horror, so those genres are not a respite for me.

I do like reading books of essays. Some of the most prized books on my shelf are beautifully bound Henry Van Dyke volumes in which the short stories read like essays on profound things. I can still remember buying them one at a time from the antique shop as a teenager. I rather suspect that after the second one, the owner started keeping an eye out for more of them to feed my habit.

Unfortunately, the book of essays is not a very popular form these days. There is no section in bookstores dedicated to essays. Occasionally, a book of essays will make the best-seller list, like Eat, Pray, Love. Even more rarely, one like The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes pops up in a yarn shop.

The place I've had the most luck finding books of essays is in the religious life section. Not theology, not religious history, but the section of books about living life with faith. It's tough to choose off this shelf, though. Some of these veer over the edge into the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, blow-by-blow memoir of life from birth through conversion like Augustine's Confessions. I don't like throwing books across the room, but sometimes there is no other choice. Others of these books veer over a different edge into preachy, how-to, self-help books. Those I throw into the donation box.

So I find myself relying on the recommendations of friends. Last spring, I read An Altar in the World, because Kathleen put it in my hands and said, "This. Now." In the autumn, I read Love Warrior, because Taylor found it to be profound. At Christmas, I reread Girl Meets God because decade-ago me thought it was amazing. This week I'm reading What Falls from the Sky because Erin sent it to me with the message that it sounded like I needed a new book. (Full disclosure: I do this, too. I gave Erin Girl Meets God for Christmas,  and I *just* handed Kathleen Chalice and Marriage and Other Acts of Charity randomly on a Wednesday with the words, "This. Now.")

While I've enjoyed each of these books and recognized the value of the wisdom they have to offer, I haven't felt like they speak to my soul the way they spoke to the soul of each of the women who recommended them.

These are other people's books.

I'm still looking for my books.



Friday, March 17, 2017

rejection


Yesterday, Facebook reminded me that eight years ago, the University of Oregon declined my proposal.
Which reminded me that eight years ago I was in the throes of a mild existential crisis. Before the four programs I applied to that year declined, I had never experienced that much rejection. It was quite a reversal from the experience of my senior year in high school when all five of the schools to which I applied accepted me and offered me money. 

The following year, my successful application to the program from which I earned my PhD in 2015, was a humbling lesson in How Things Work. Never before had I really understood the maxim that who you know is more important than what you know. It was absolutely my network connections that   pushed my submission to the top of the stack of applications from other eminently qualified people. 

In the last couple of years the realities of the academic job market have brought this experience of rejection back to my life. It's not unusual for job seekers in the humanities to submit upwards of 70 dossiers, each customized to the recipient institution, for 1-2 interviews and maybe 0-1 job offers each year.

I am, however, responding to rejection differently.

In her blog post "Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year" Kim Liao talks about flipping the way we regard the rejection slip. It is not evidence of unworthiness, but rather evidence of bravery. Evidence of the audacity to take a chance.

It's also evidence of productivity. In order to put oneself out there, a writer or an academic has to be producing the work to put in the envelope (read: e-mail attachment) in the first place. Aiming for one acceptance would mean slaving over a single document long beyond the point at which real improvement ceases to happen. Accepting the inevitability of, and *gasp* even celebrating, rejection means sending things out as soon as they are polished enough. And sometimes rejection comes with the advice needed to improve to the next level.

I'm not the same sort of writer that Liao is, and 100 rejections a year is beyond the scope of what I need to be aiming for as a writer of scholarly journal articles. But if I add up all the ways I want to be putting myself out there in the next year, I should be able to garner a healthy number of rejections from academic journals and presses, job postings, fellowships and grants, and potential friends and partners. I think I'll aim for 40.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

birthdays

I love birthdays. I love my birthday. I love everyone else's birthdays. I especially love birthdays in the era of social media.

Facebook is the best thing to happen to birthdays since cake.

I know that not everyone agrees with me. At least one friend probably wishes that I would stop remembering the birthday he chooses not to mark publicly.

I just can't let go of the idea that birthdays are an amazing thing, though, so I selfishly celebrate everyone else's birthdays as well as my own.

A birthday is the day that commemorates the fact that someone wasn't, until suddenly they were.  Birthdays commemorate magic! (while I concede that technically birth is biology, I maintain that it actually is magic)

A birthday is also the day that celebrates successfully having completed one more trip around the sun, three hundred and sixty five more days above the soil. This is also a feat worth noticing.

Over twelve years I had gotten used to receiving a dozen roses on my birthday. I'd missed them these last three.

This year, I decided to treat myself.


Almost, I cried in the flower shop. Instead, I cried in the car in the parking lot of my building. Buying flowers for my own birthday did not used to be my job.

It is now.

It is magic that I am here. Today is the day I remember that once upon a time I wasn't, until suddenly I was. Today is the day I thank God for the privilege of waking up to put my feet on the ground.

Happy Birthday to Me!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

women's march

I marched because I am a woman.

I marched because I have a mother and daughters and sisters and aunts and grandmothers. 

I marched because I have held space for the fears of my immigrant students and friends. 
Photo Credit: Veronica

I marched because democracy looks like voting AND it looks like this. 

Today I stood with half a million feminists as we peacefully occupied the streets of Washington, DC. 
Photo Credit: Veronica

Today I sang protest songs on the overcrowded metro to the rally. 
Photo Credit: Anna

Today I walked back across the river because the metro was too full. 

Today I put my body where my mouth is. 

Today I stood up. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mark

My uncle died. I am sad that he is gone, that I will never see his wry smile except on the backs of my eyelids. I am not sad that his pain is over. Chronic illness in these last years made his life a daily challenge, made him old before his time. I am sad that I did not figure out how to be supportive, that I  did not make the transition from niece to friend.

So many of our best family stories feature Mark.

My earliest memories of this uncle are as the humbug in the dark room upstairs who loved cats more than little girls and who did not celebrate Christmas with the rest of the family. The first year he decided to rejoin the holidays, he bought my sister, my cousins and me wild things from Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Ted got Max because he was the only boy at that point. My sister Gwen, Ted's sister Gretchen, and I got Wild Things 1, 2, and 3 in age order.

I am Wild Thing 1.

This toy, now more than thirty years old, still has pride of place in my bedroom.

When I was graduating college, Mark called and asked if he could come. I was surprised, but my mom pointed out that Mark had never had kids of his own, but he had me. He came, and I was glad he was there.

I thank him for teaching me cleverness, for honing my wit, and for showing me through his choices that it is possible to challenge the systems in which we participate. I can be a devout Methodist with heretical tendencies because Mark was an anarchist who worked for the IRS. Remind me to tell you the story about the name tags sometime.

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 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.  

Friday, August 26, 2016

finding the joy

I've been having a bit of a freakout this summer.

On paper, my career is moving in a good direction: I submitted an article to an academic journal and am now revising in response to reviewer comments. That same journal asked me to review someone else's submission. I accepted a postdoctoral teaching fellowship at a denominational liberal arts college. All positive signs of my professional development.

Although I've been celebrating my new full-time teaching fellowship with cheers and champagne and flaily muppet arms, I couldn't find the joy. I felt relief as this job lifts the burden of worry about finances, I felt gratitude for the recognition of my skills, but not joy for the work itself.

And then I felt guilty for not feeling joy. I love teaching. This job should have put me over the moon. Where was the joy?!?!?!?

Then, I had a disturbing epiphany. The last time I started to feel like a professional who was being taken seriously, the last time I had made my career a priority, tragedy exploded my life. The last time I allowed myself to believe these things were real and that I deserved them, I had to give them up. The circumstances--signing contracts, planning research, settling in to my own space--feel familiar.  I'm having trouble trusting this reality again. My lack of joy is like a Pavlovian conditioned response: professional security will be followed by darkness and turmoil, so prepare thyself.

Since I've been able to see the dynamics at play, they've had less power. My full-on freakout has subsided to the normal stage fright I have at the beginning of every semester.

And today, there was even some joy. At this university, the faculty dress for convocation. Since I didn't march in my doctoral commencement, today was the first day I got to wear a hood and tam.



It felt pretty amazing.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

audacity

A little over three years ago, people started telling me I was brave. For a long time, this label made me deeply uncomfortable. But people just. kept. saying it, and I got tired of debating my (lack of) bravery.

First I practiced not arguing with the people who told me I was brave. When I had mastered that, I practiced not physically recoiling from the word. And when I had finally mastered that, I started thinking about what they might see that I did not.

Because, really, from my perspective, I have not done anything brave or, for that matter, anything strong. First I did the next necessary things. Then I did the next logical things. Then I did the next possible things.

In a fit of nostalgia this evening, I was watching the 2001 romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, and Hugh Jackman's character told Meg Ryan's character that
The brave are simply those with the clearest vision of what is before them--glory and danger alike--and notwithstanding go out to meet it.
It's a beautiful definition, but it certainly doesn't apply to me. While I have continued to act despite fear, I wouldn't say that I've ever had a clear vision.

Recently accepting a postdoctoral teaching fellowship, a full-time contract position with salary and benefits, was such a joy. I was walking down the sidewalk that afternoon, grinning like a fool, and feeling validated, not only by the job offer but also by recent progress in academic publication.

A little over a year ago I was an unemployed graduate student whose life was in boxes, and now I'm a post-doctoral teaching fellow with one article forthcoming and another under review.

A little over a year ago I was an unemployed graduate student whose life was in boxes...and I moved my family halfway across the country? Without a job? What the fuck was I thinking?

This last year could have gone much, much differently. All along, I had had a vague sense that things might not work out, and I made sure that there was enough cash in my emergency fund to drag my life back to Kalamazoo if necessary, but I did not have a clear vision of the dangers until this moment in which I finally feel safe.

I only ever see my own audacity in hindsight.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

three

In general, I don't think that deathdays should be marked. I would rather celebrate my dearly departeds on their birthdays. Today, though, is demanding my attention.

There's something different about three. One felt light. I had a sense of relief at having gotten through an entire cycle of holidays and birthdays and seasons. Three feels heavy.

Maybe three feels heavy because my life is so different now. I've made a different set of choices for myself and the children than we had made as a married couple. To live in an apartment. To live in this city. To build a career.

I've been thinking about the final poem in Lorca's Lament this month "Alma Ausente."

4. Absent Soul

The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree, 
nor the horses, nor the ants in your own house.
The child and the afternoon do not know you
because you have died forever.

The back of the stone does not know you,
nor the black satin in which you crumble.
Your silent memory does not know you
because you have died forever. 

I could add a verse:

The cat does not know you, nor the rabbit
nor the plants bearing fruit on the balcony. 
The walls of this home do not know you
because you have died forever. 

The heaviest thing right now is the tension between my sadness and my happiness. I am profoundly sad. I am sad that Adam died in the prime of life. I am sad that the life we had planned is gone. I am sad that I am lonely without a partner. I carry these sadnesses in my bones. Yet, at the same time, I am  joyfully happy. I am happy to be wresting with my research and building a career. I am happy to be here, in the city, on the coast. I am happy with my sit-com life

Happy and sad at the same time is a jarring dissonance. I am not alone, though. In church this morning, Psalm 77 gave equal weight to lamentation and praise, and I was reminded of the early days three years ago when my prayer life contracted to the words: Help, Thanks, Wow. There were many nights when my cries for help were accompanied by exclamations of thanks and wonder.

Maybe three feels heavy because I don't know what comes next. The next three years could hold as much change as the last. I only know that I am happy, and I am sad.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

on the way

I haven't written to you in a while, and I've missed you.

It's not that I've had nothing to say. I have so much to say--too much, perhaps--and I've lost my voice.

That's not true. I know exactly where my voice is. It's stopped up in a jam of ideas right behind my sternum, and sometimes it aches. Sometimes I open my mouth to sing and there is no air. I've held my fingers over the keyboard in front of this blank screen countless times.

That's also not true. More often, I think about writing, and the picture of the blank screen in my mind's eye is so daunting that I don't even open this program. My fingers don't even get the chance.

I have an article to finish and a sermon to write from scratch by the end of the month, though. Something has to move. Something has to ease past the aching jam of ideas.

So, let me tell you about my commute.

Twice a week, I sit down on a train for a short ride into the District. Always, there is something in my hands--usually knitting, occasionally prayer beads. The metro in this city is not beautiful, and I don't need to pay attention in order to get where I'm going.

But between my start and my stop, the yellow line briefly emerges from below to cross the Potomac. Even though I know it is coming, the burst of light always grabs my attention. My fingers stop moving. I look up: trees...fence...bridges...river...monuments:

If, as Steven Prothero writes in The American Bible, the Declaration and the Constitution are, among other documents, the scripture of our civic religion, these monuments are our temple. These places where we go to remember our collective greatness and mourn our collective flaws help to maintain American community. 

And I get to visit them as often as I want. In fact, twice a day, two days a week, I see them as a matter of course. 

The view is always brief. If the train is packed, I may see only river, or only the heads and shoulders of other commuters. Nonetheless, that brief moment before the yellow line descends is a moment of wonder, a brief stillness in the mind while the body is in motion. 

There's something else to say, something about the river, but that idea remains stuck.

Let's hope that this idea has eased the jam, and I will write to you further anon.

Friday, February 5, 2016

"to make beautiful even the reckoning"

In a recent post about coping with a baby who doesn't sleep, Sarah Bessey wrote:
I think that when we are faced with something we cannot fix or control – however small or however big – it can break us wide open and we discover who we were underneath the comfort trappings of answers or affluence or health or even sleep or whatever it is that we’ve lost. And then when the underneath of us is out in the fresh air, I think it’s an opportunity to heal it, to strengthen it, to make beautiful even the reckoning.
And my heart wept. Bessey, even in her sleep-deprived state, eloquently expresses an idea that I have been circling around for months.

Tragedy and tribulations force us to ask whether we really believe what we say we believe, whether we have the courage to let our beliefs guide our actions. When ten schoolgirls were shot in 2006, the nation was shocked as the Amish community lived out the faith they profess, showing compassion to the family of the gunman. I admired them, but I thought it must be terribly difficult.

In 2013, I found myself in a similar situation. When a reckless teenager killed my husband, many of our friends wanted me to be angry, to exact punishment, to demand that she be tried as an adult. Beyond simply being too numb to be angry, I realized that I could not make those demands. I just could not, not if I believe that adolescence is psychologically and physiologically different from adulthood, not if I believe that the rehabilitative justice of the juvenile court is more effective than the retributive justice that dominates the American legal system, not if I believe that my faith calls me to compassion. That summer was, as Bessey describes, a moment in which I was broken wide open, and I had to discover who I was.

Right now, American society has been broken wide open. Domestic and international terrorism and the wars and military actions in which we participate strip away our collective sense of safety and security. We feel threatened, we feel vulnerable, and the world seems chaotic, but it is in our response to this loss of the sense of control that we discover who we are. If we respond to our broken-openness with fear, if we scramble to cover the underneath of us that has been exposed, we become not what we believe ourselves to be.

We Americans have long professed values of openness and inclusivity. Indeed, the symbol of our liberty invites to these shores the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. If we want to continue to profess these values, we must look to them to guide the decisions we make. Even if the poor and the tired do not look like us or worship like us or speak our language. Even when it is difficult. Even when welcoming immigrants and refugees may change us as much as being among us changes them.


Friday, January 1, 2016

listen

The turn of the year is always a time for taking stock. The long break between academic semesters makes space for all the thinking I've been avoiding to assert itself in the forefront of my mind.

As I've been reading job ads and assembling application materials over the last couple of weeks, I've felt pretty disheartened about my work this year. My CV is glaringly unchanged over the last twelve months. Having finally finished my PhD helps on the job market, but I still don't have the publication record that would help me compete with the real job candidates. I feel a bit like Pinocchio or the Velveteen Rabbit--almost there, still not real.

At the same time, I did accomplish a lot of things in my personal life, most critically finally defeating the hydra of my late husband's estate: all the real estate, all the vehicles, all the financial accounts. Done and dusted.

And then I moved our household from middle to coast with minimal disruption to the children's academic and athletic lives. I deserve a medal for the level of normalcy I maintained for the children through this process.

In pursuit of those accomplishments, though, I became a person I don't like. In some ways self-centeredness was necessary. I could not have finalized the estate and finished my degree and moved the household if I had also volunteered for school and civic organizations as I had previously. I needed that hyper-focus in order to begin again.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, though, I sat down to make a list of the loved ones I wanted to give gifts to at Christmas. This is usually an activity I enjoy because giving gifts is wonderful, but I made the list of names and then realized I had no idea what to make or find for any of them. No idea. Not for my kids, not for my mother, not for my best friend. No understanding of what my beloveds need this year or what would bring smiles to their faces.

I forgot to listen.

Beloveds, I apologize if I have been less than the friend you needed. I am so sorry if I've pushed you to be more than the friend you wanted to be. I am ashamed of having failed to show you that I value you. Please forgive my selfishness.

In the new year, I am resolved to be more present with you, beloveds. This year, I will listen.