Waiting, groaning for the world to turn

Adapted from a reflection written for San Francisco Theological Seminary during Advent 2017.

A response to Romans 8:22-27, and the hymn Canticle of the Turning.

Over the past ten years in Honduras, Berta Cáceres successfully organized her indigenous Lenca people’s community against a World Bank- and private business-funded dam project that was implemented with little or no input from local inhabitants of the Guadalcarque River. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize, as the dam project was stalled, and investors fled. In 2016, Cáceres was shot to death in her home, in a town called La Esperanza, which cooincidentally in Spanish means “hope.” Eight men have been arrested, but the murderers have not been brought to justice. Many murderers in Honduras are not.

I imagine that Berta’s heart cries out. But with joy? With hope? Hope for what? She hopes for what she never will see.

The violence menaces still. Honduras is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, for environmental and political activists, for community organizers, for women. Dozens of activists are killed each year, hundreds of women, with impunity. In three weeks leading up to the national election on Nov. 26, at least four political activists, from various parties, were attacked and killed. At least one protester, a 19-year-old woman, has been killed in the weeks since the election.

I work for the church, a U.S. Presbyterian mission co-worker, partnering with the Honduran Presbyterian church. I do not know what I ought to pray for. Is it enough, surrounded by such menace, to say that we care for our congregants’ souls, and we leave “politics” out on the church steps?

As She—Mary, Berta, Spirit—intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words, we do not know what we ought to pray for. We hope against hope, though we die. The world is about to turn, the hymn says. Until the world turns, creation groans, the earth groans, our very bodies groan, and the body of Christ groans for the redemption that has been promised today, not tomorrow, not after death, but now, in the turning of the world.

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A narrative introduction

I am a new mission co-worker, ordained by the Presbytery of Santa Fe and called by World Mission to serve with Iglesia Presbiteriana de Honduras (Presbyterian Church of Honduras) in theological education and leadership development. I plan to move to Honduras in January 2018.

I first became interested in Central America when I was 13 years old and my parents took me and my sister to visit my aunt, who was a mission co-worker in El Salvador during that country’s civil war. During this trip to El Salvador, I learned the refrain to a song that was part of a mass commissioned by the late Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero: “Vamos todos al banquete, a la mesa de la creación. Cada cual con su taburete tiene un puesto y una misión.” Translated, it is “Let’s all go to the banquet, to the table of creation. Each of us has a seat and a mission.” This song was filled with peace and hope for equality.

I had this song in mind as my family visited places such as El Mozote, the site of a massacre of peasants by the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military. Where was the place at the table for these men, women and children who were slain? I saw mansions surrounded by 20-foot walls with razor wire and broken glass at the top, practically next door to cardboard- and newspaper-insulated homes with dirt floors and mothers my age in hammocks with their babies. At my young age, this was the first time I recognized the depth of divides between rich and poor, and I saw the contrast between the lived reality of Salvadorans and the song that was so hopeful and idyllic. So often the hope we proclaim in Jesus Christ feels so far away from the world.

After I returned to the United States, I became a journalist, and I learned in part the power of narrative and stories. As a journalist I listened to stories with compassion, yes, and with a heart for the truth, but also with an agenda. Would the story sell in the paper? Was it “newsworthy”?

During my first year in seminary, a theology professor told my class, “People think of their lives as narratives. Religious people think of their lives as narratives connected to a larger narrative, with a bigger meaning.” Aha, I thought. Narrative is something I know about. The ministry I envisioned for myself started to become one of storytelling and narrative.

When I became a chaplain, I worked first with patients in a hospital burn unit, then with patients in hospice care. In both cases, my work was hard to describe in concrete terms. As a chaplain, I could not “do” much to help my patients. I sat with them, I listened to them, sometimes even as they could not speak or communicate for themselves. When I met patients for the first time, they often looked at me with suspicion. “What are you going to do for me?” was their question, or, “How are you going to try to ‘fix’ me or convert me or change me?” Hospital and hospice patients rarely need more people telling them what to do, giving advice, or judging their choices. Their bodies have become not their own, taken over by disease, and handed over to medical professionals for physical healing, so most patients are naturally reluctant to then hand over their spiritual and mental space to a strange chaplain standing in the doorway.

I had to learn to embody humility, conveying that I have no agenda but to support the patient’s agenda, to hear and value the patient’s narrative, and that I will wait to be invited in. Everyone has a place, a mission, even the patient, even the poor. A chaplain’s work is often one of empowerment, of narrative, and this work cannot be done with telling or advising. Most often it can be done only by listening, and accompanying.

As I look forward to moving to Honduras, I have this image of a banquet on my mind. I am an educated, relatively wealthy Anglo North American, and I am conscious of the legacy my people have in Central America. Over the past 150 years, Honduras has been rather used by the United States for the United States’ own agenda of extractive colonialism, neo-liberal capitalism and military strategy. Like a chaplain arriving in the door of a hospital room, I will be carrying all the baggage of my people’s narrative into my relationship with the people I am meeting for the first time.

Nevertheless, the Presbyterian Church of Honduras has requested the presence, the partnership, the accompaniment, of the Presbyterian Church-USA. The leaders of the Honduran church are hungry for education and empowerment that has until recently been unavailable. I want to do what I can to change the narrative of U.S. activities in Honduras from one of colonization to one of table. I go to Honduras to join the church at the banquet, where neither I nor the U.S. church is at the head. I go to sit alongside the Honduran church leaders, to break bread with them, to feast with them, to live into the hope of justice and good, and to proclaim, “each of us has a seat, a place, a mission.”

I welcome your partnership in this mission. Please pray for me, correspond with me, visit me, and give financially. (You can do that here.) Your prayers, presence, and gifts encourage me and bring me joy and hope, and enrich our relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Honduras. Thank you for your interest and attention. Vamos todos!

Guilty Feminist: Faith and feminism

One of my favorite podcasts tackled faith and feminism in such a wonderful way: “The problem isn’t the Bible,” a queer feminist chaplain said. “The problem is whom we’ve allowed to read the Bible.”

http://traffic.libsyn.com/guiltyfeminist/GF65_Feminism_and_Faith_with_Reubs_J_Walsh_Leyla_Hussein_and_Rev_Kate_Harford.m4a?dest-id=325135

Pussyhats and rabbit poses

Originally written as a Lenten devotional for San Francisco Theological Seminary, a reflection on Ephesians 3:14-21:

Right away I cringe at this text. “I bow my knees before the Father,” the writer says, and my third-wave feminist mind conjures images of submission, passivity, and docility. This is not the posture of a woman who makes sure she always has a seat at the conference table during meetings, who changes the lyrics of hymns to call God “mother,” who crochets pussyhats for the Women’s March on Washington. My image of serving Christ is usually more like standing up and shouting before “She-Who-Is.” This is an image I’ve worked hard to integrate into my being, working against societal norms of polite silence for women.

At a yoga class during this Lent, I tried a pose that was new to me. The teacher called it “rabbit” pose or sasakasana. I was on my knees, with my head to the floor, and my hands reaching behind me to grab my heels. This passage from Ephesians flashed through my mind, and it occurred to me that there is no more possible bowing my body could do. I was completely doubled over. The instructor encouraged us to breathe in and out, and as we breathed, to deepen our bends, and to feel the grounding of our bodies. “Thank your body for getting out of your own way,” she said.

I’m not so sure my chubby body was really doing such a good job of getting out of my way as I lay there with my knees pressing my bosom and my sweaty face stuck to my yoga mat. Nevertheless, I thanked my body, my imperfect female body, for bowing its knees, for taking in breath, for helping me to be me.

I thought of all the other kinds of bowing I have done during this Lent: kneeling on the floor to play with a coworker’s 5-year-old son, bending to whisper prayers for a hospice patient who is journeying towards death, kneeling beside the bereaved during a funeral rosary. This rabbit pose and numerous others during my yoga class.

All of this bowing, letting my body get out of my own way, helped me realize that in Christ, and in my bowing, I can also be “rooted and grounded in love.”

 

Jesus, cannibalism and chicken feet

Adapted from a sermon preached Aug. 16, 2015, at First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky.

Recently I visited a former seminary classmate who lives near Los Angeles. He’s of Filipino and Chinese descent, and we went to have dim sum at one of his favorite restaurants in Chinatown. We ordered chicken feet. I have eaten and liked them before, in Korea, where they are eaten in mounds as bar food, like rubbery, gelatinous French fries, and doused in the spiciest of sauces. There is one big difference, though: The feet I’ve eaten before are deboned.

Chicken feet in Daejeon, South Korea.
Deboned chicken feet in Daejeon, South Korea.

Not the case with Chinese chicken feet, at least those at this restaurant. They’re full of hard, tiny bones. They’re really hard to eat. My friend explained that I’d have to bite off a whole toe, and then gnaw the bones clean with my teeth and tongue, and then spit out the bones. This is not bar food. My friend told me his theory about why this difficult-to-eat delicacy is so immensely popular: “I think Chinese people like food where there’s some sense of adventure. It’s not just food, but it’s an accomplishment.”

So when you imagine the meal in this passage of the gospel of John, imagine eating chicken feet, nibbling the flesh off tiny, hard bones, chewing the rubbery covering, swallowing the flesh, spitting out the bones. It takes about five minutes to finish two mouthfuls. You can’t eat fast, you might choke. The eating of these feet is a communal experience. You’re passing dish after dish of dim sum between yourself and your companions, everyone taking a bite or two at a time. “Try that,” someone says, pointing with chop sticks. “Pass the tea,” you say. Bones are discarded from the chicken feet, banana leaves are unwrapped from sticky rice. Different combinations of sauce are tried and retried.

When Jesus talks about eating the bread and water of life, his flesh and blood, imagine this kind of meal. Imagine munching on tasty morsels of dim sum and chicken feet. Imagine not a sterile passing of a thimble of juice and a tiny piece of bread. Imagine a savoring, a crunching, a slurping, an enjoying of friends. Imagine a meal.

The wisdom of the gospel is a meal.

The wisdom of Proverbs 9:1-6 lays a meal; she is a person the reader gets to know, sensually, bodily, viscerally. Some scholars say that the writers of Proverbs probably characterized Wisdom as an alluring woman in order to attract the young men who were studying the scriptures in priestly and scribal schools. Woman Wisdom is not offering a metaphorical meal, or an intellectual one. The meal is bodily. Wisdom is a person, and she has laid a table. She calls us in to partake.

Wisdom is a meal.

From its first verses, the Gospel of John associates Jesus Christ with the divine person of Wisdom. At the start of John 6, Jesus is feeding five thousand people a miraculous meal of bread and fish. The five thousand people lay in the grass, in the sunshine, near the sea. They ate until they were satisfied. It was in the context of a meal, a satisfying meal, in which Jesus was understood. We can’t understand Jesus as the bread of life, unless we understand this satisfying meal.

This is the kind of understanding that can’t come from our brains, from a book. It is an understanding that arrests us with its graphic nature. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This visual image is as disturbing to me as it was to the people hearing Jesus preach in the synagogue.

What does it look like, in today’s world, to abide in Christ, for Christ to abide in us? How are we to partake of a meal with the body of Christ?

This is not a story about believing in Jesus. This is not a story about understanding a metaphor about Jesus. This is the Gospel of a meal of Wisdom and true life, true bread, true flesh and blood. The gospel of Wisdom is a meal, a satisfying meal, with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of relationship.

To understand this meal, we have to crunch on some things we don’t normally think of crunching on. We have to eat with people we don’t normally like or want to eat with. We have to recognize that Christ is welcoming all to his table. We will only “get it” when we’ve sat down with strangers and “others” and people who believe different things, and found the body of Christ abiding in them as well as in ourselves.

First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky., has been my home for more than 11 years now. When I arrived in Lexington, I was this stranger from out west, moving to a new place out of college, and my grandmother called up her old childhood friends and asked them to invite me to church. The way I came to love this church and the people in it was over meals, studying and arguing together—yes arguing—because through the weekly Bible studies that I joined, I found friends I knew cared about me, despite our differing politics and generations and lifestyles.

As we munched the food we made for each other every week, we ruminated on the scriptures, and we came to see Christ abiding in each other.

What happens when Christ abides in us? What happens when we abide in Christ? We share in Christ’s divinity. We also share in Christ’s vulnerability. The vulnerability part is a necessary piece. When we are Christians, we agree to be in relationship with people we don’t normally hang out with.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a trip with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through Mexico and Central America. During a walk along the U.S.-Mexico border, a pastor in Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Sonora, described the experience of meditating on the stations of the cross, or celebrating Communion, across the border fence that divides the town. Before the fence was built, it was easier to pass bread and juice across the divide. Now steel mesh in many places prevents completion of the simple sacrament. Meanwhile politicians in the United States want to build higher, bigger, and more dangerous.

Celebrating a meal with people across this border now seems futile. Unwise. The gospel here looks like UNwisdom. What will it change to allow Christ to abide in us? To peer through the fence and see Christ abiding in another person? The truth is that it’s unlikely to change much on the border. But it will change much inside us.image

Preparing to preach on bread and wisdom …

“All throughout John 6, Jesus has tried to help us embrace that God’s wisdom — to steal a word from Proverbs — is not so much knowledge to be explained and understood as it is relationship to be trusted and embraced.”

via John 6:51-58 Commentary by Craig A. Satterlee – Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL).