Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why is a cold symptom like a dark night? (to reshape Mr. Carroll's question for my purposes.)

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; 
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16ff

I’ve had a cold the last of couple weeks. I haven’t had a cold in years, but now I’ve been dealing with a gunky throat, full sinuses, ringing ears and a balloony head. I’m actually good with all this because of my theory that for years my immune system’s been hyperactive (with my various autoimmune issues); and thus, no virus had a chance. The thought continues that when I finally succumb to an everyday virus it’ll mean that my health’s improving. (Be advised, I know of no scientific backing for this theory. I may well be deluding myself.)

Anyway… I have a cold and I just realized yesterday that my sense of smell is almost nonexistent.

Every Friday, I refresh the lemon essential oil in my homemade diffuser. When I was doing this yesterday, as the drops were running down the skewers, I stuck my nose close. Then closer… When it was almost touching the jar, I could finally notice the lemon. Sigh. I hope Kay’s been able to enjoy the scent because it’s been wasted on me this week!

Going to Koreana for lunch was fun but I realized as I bit into a wild-caught shrimp that, although I could sense some spice and enjoy the different food textures, I couldn’t really notice the flavors to appreciate them.

Someone brought up “a dark night of the soul” in one of our study groups this week. I understand this as a time when God seems particularly far away. It may have some roots in mental illness (as is believed to have been the case with Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness) but not necessarily. As I understand it, the “dark night” experience is one that lasts for months or even years. And, it seems to me, it’s something that’d be experienced by people who’ve spent a lot of life in prayer. (If we’ve never worked on our God relationship, we’re not likely to notice a change in it.)

This is personal for me, and not just because I feel a tie to Georgia since I researched her life a few years ago. A few months ago, I noticed that I don’t feel God present with me as I have other times. I’m not sure how long it’d been this way but there’s definitely a difference. I keep praying, but it feels… hollow in a way that’s unfamiliar.

This morning – with Kay’s priming – I was struck with the idea that my not being able to smell might be similar to not sensing God. Are you ready? This might fall flat, but here goes.

I know the particles of lemon oil and the Korean barbeque are still floating about in the air nearby. I’m just temporarily unable to perceive them. Other people can smell them and enjoy them. It’s just that – for now – I can’t.

Similarly, I trust that God is still present. Other people, animals, trees, and rocks are aware of God, but not me. For now, I’m simply not sensitive to their* presence.

I hope this will change. I like “feeling” that God is near. In the meantime, I keep praying because I know as surely as I know anything that this is an awareness issue and not an absence.

* I’ve recently taken a page from millenials’ example of using the English language to serve their reality instead of adapting their world to fit the language. As God is not gendered, I claim the use of they and their for this non-gender-specific singular usage.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tiny Pots of Hope

This time of year is always exciting for me. Winter has lost its hold on the world; spring is more than a distant dream. Except for those years I lived in an apartment, this is the time you'd find my south windowsills adorned with small pots full of seedling plants if you visited. I’m not prejudiced; I make room for tomatoes as well as marigolds, zinnias and sweet peas (new, this year) as well as kale and collards.

For me, this is living in hope. I trust that with warmer weather, I'll find moments to place my young charges into the warming earth where most of them – the ones not eaten by rabbits or pulled up by squirrels or chipmunks – will grow and even thrive as plants have been doing since that first spring ever so long ago.

Hope is how I live. It's what got me through my youth when I knew I was different but didn’t know how to articulate it or what to do about it. It led me to Navajoland (Dinétah) when, fresh out of college, I wanted to explore the world and touch people’s lives. It sustained me through my marriage. And it led me to strike out on my own again, to leave the toxicity of those 25 years behind, and get growing into who God knew me to be. Hope led me, a year ago, to face the Board of Ordained Ministry again to see if they could affirm that I was “ready” to be ordained.

Hope sends me to go to bed at night and gets me up each morning, trusting to possibilities. It leads me to plant seeds – in pots, in conversations, and here – and trees, trusting that though I may never see the fruit of my efforts, they will come… in God’s own time.

Sometimes people see me as naïve because of my hope. And, yes, I am a dreamer, but of the kind of dreams Martin Luther King spoke about. Like him, I realize such dreams take a whole lot of work to realize. That’s probably why I’m so pushy about justice and compassion, and about all of us needing to lead lives that bring those dreams closer to fruition.

Now I know that some people are feeling hopeful and others hopeless. This is ever the case; still, there may be more angst these days. Some are full of hope for what might finally be done. Others despair for what may be destroyed. I get that. Probably both are correct. Things will change, good and bad. Change is prerequisite to better things happening. The death of the once-was is necessary for the what-may-be to erupt.

No matter where you are politically or theologically, no matter what’s happening in your life (and I get it, illness, death, and loss are real) make it a point to find, or create new, hope – in your day, in your week, in this season of your life.
  Look among the nations and watch!
        Be astonished and stare
            because something is happening in your days
                that you wouldn’t believe even if told. Habakkuk 1:5

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Choice is Ours

At a clergy gathering on Tuesday, Bishop Jung invited us to spend some time talking at our tables. I don’t remember the topic, but I brought up my challenges with being authentic, as I believe God leads me to be. Another, the lead pastor of a larger church – remarked about God not being the one who signs the paychecks (my wording). I don’t pretend to know this person’s beliefs or opinions, but their words suggest what a challenge it is for people to true to what they believe.

When I was getting into pastoral ministry, accepting that I was on the later side of my working years and that Kay would be on her own in a few years, I committed to be as authentic as I could, come what may. And for ten years, I’ve practiced. It’s tricky. Sometimes I’m more successful than others.

When one is passionate about justice and earth care in a sociopolitical environment like the one we’re in, one must either adapt, remain silent, or be prepared for challenges and snubbings. (I’ve never been good at being quiet.) Yet these things I care about are the sort of things I hear God expects us to work on.

What concerns are you passionate about? How do you navigate that fine line between authenticity and boring or offending people? This last is something I’ve struggled with. I couldn’t get how people couldn't see the importance of earth care or would say they’re Christian but not follow Jesus’ lead in their lives. I used to be more outspoken, but I got tired of people not wanting to be around me. I still try to keep the message out there, but with a softer delivery.

People don’t want to hear about their excesses. Many refuse to face the whiteness that keeps justice at arm’s length. Then, there’s the prosperity gospel – a certain form of conservative Christianity popular in the U.S. that corrupts the gospel message. Robert Leonard recently wrote an article about this notion that God grants financial blessings to the faithful.

Now I like the idea of faithful people get rewarded financially BUT this just isn’t biblical. By tallying gospel references, we find that Jesus talked more about money than anything else, but not about the mountains of it we’d each get by believing. No, he talked about not storing up treasures for ourselves, and the wealthy having a hard time coming to salvation (Matthew 6:19, 19:24).

I suspect lots of people who avoid church know the bible better than we give them credit for and that, like Gandhi, they “like your Christ, [but] do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” They may not know it’s Matthew 25, but they know about Jesus’ call to care for the least and the lost. And they know that too many Christians aren’t doing it. We shouldn’t be surprised that 85% of Millennials who don’t do church find Christians to be hypocritical.[1]

If your Christianity doesn’t lead you into justice and compassion, then please use this Lenten season to examine your beliefs. Your god might not be the one you think it is. (And, no, I'm not "you-you-you-ing." This is something I ask myself regularly, too.)

[1] “… substantial majorities of Millennials who don’t go to church say they see Christians as judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), anti-homosexual (91%) and insensitive to others (70%).” From “Millennials at Church: What Millennials Want When They Visit Church”

Saturday, March 4, 2017

This Fast

When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face.
Then you won’t look like you are fasting … 
Matthew 6:16-18

The other day, someone asked when Methodists got so into Lent. I've wondered that myself, and though I don't know the when, I shared something I'd read a few years ago: that in trying to distance themselves from all things Catholic, leaders of the Protestant Reformation rejected many traditions and understandings that may be worth reclaiming.

I don't fault them; they did what they had to do at the time. Yet, looking from a distance of some 500 years, churches have – thankfully – begun to see value in such things as honoring Jesus' mother, the theotokos (God bearer), who not only raised him but was there at both beginning and the end of his ministry. We’ve also gotten more serious about observing Lent.

Prayer and fasting are the two big Lenten practices. Yet while many of us “get” prayer we can be at a loss with fasting. Isn’t that what you do before a blood draw or, worse, a colonoscopy? Then there’s the research showing that intermittent fasting – timing your meals to allow for regular periods of fasting – benefits us by:
  • Helping promote insulin sensitivity 
  • Normalizing ghrelin levels (the “hunger hormone”)
  • Lowering triglycerides
  • Helping suppress inflammation and fight free radical damage.[1]
Wow! Who knew?

But the fasting I’m talking about is the spiritual practice of doing without something. By taking a break from food, media, shopping or whatever else draws our time and energy from God’s big picture, we can reorient ourselves, re-turning to God and God’s hope for the world.

This returning to God is something most of us probably do regularly anyway, but Lent is a special time when the Church has historically encouraged it.

The United Methodist Church doesn’t have official guidelines on how people should observe Lent, calling it “a very personal time of self-reflection.” I would agree that no one (except God) should tell anyone else what their fast should be. Yet, if the Isaiah writer was correct, God does this:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. Isaiah 58:6-9a
I admit I see God's call to justice as a bigger deal than most of the people around me. (When I discovered Liberation Theology, I felt I'd found my niche.) It seems that U.S. Christians are generally too comfortable with the gods we made in our own image. God’s call to care for the other, to treat the immigrant like they’re one of us, echoed in Jesus’ declarations in Matthew 25, fall on deaf ears.

I’m not saying we’re bad people, but we’ve been lulled into accepting that affluenza, excessive consumption, and destroying the earth and its other occupants in the process are all business as usual. It’s sad. It’s awful. And it’s truth.

Lent is a time to clear our hearts and minds, and to open ourselves to what we’ve forgotten:
  • That the earth is God’s and all that is in it (Psalm 24)
  • That everything we have comes from God (1 Chronicles 29:14), and 
  • That we’re to share what we’ve been given (Luke 3:11). 
One blessed thing about God is that we can come as we are. We can come when we come. We are never beyond God's caring. It is never too late. So if you haven’t already begun a Lenten practice and you think you'd like to, jump in right where you are.

[1] Dr. Joseph Mercola, "Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting."