Be brave and strong

Teaching a workshop on the sacraments to pastors and elders of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras.

Written as a reflection for a mission connections letter.

I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because THE LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9, Common English Bible

This verse was read before I knelt and prayed before the Presbyterian congregations of Honduras, their pastors’ hands laid on me, and I was installed as the mission co-worker assigned to work with them for the next four-year term.

The commandment to be “brave and strong,” to not be afraid, was particularly meaningful to me because I arrived in Honduras immediately after a time of political turmoil and violence. At the time of my installation, I had spent the previous month heeding my Honduran colleagues’ advice on where to go and not go, whether to drive alone, whether to visit strange neighborhoods for the first time. I had chosen a rental home and a car with safety and security as my primary goals. I had watched news of political protesters killed by military forces, police officers killed by gang members, bus drivers extorted for “taxes” to thugs, a corporate executive arrested for masterminding the assassination of an environmental activist. There is plenty to fear in Honduras.

I am used to being independent and bold — as a journalist and as a chaplain, I went into places where others feared to tread. I am not used to heeding the fears and worries of others: I travel alone, I live alone, I have driven cross-country alone, I have accompanied the dying alone in their hospital rooms.

Blessed by pastors in Honduras as I am installed as mission coworker.

“Be brave and strong.” “Don’t be terrified.” I mulled over those words as I knelt on Pastor Edin Samayoa’s sweater — he had taken it off and put it on the floor to cushion my knees. Pastor Edin leads a church in a neighborhood where I am not allowed to go alone, or at night, and where newcomers have to announce their presence, roll down the car windows, and get permission from gang members to enter.

Your God goes with you wherever you go. Those words were made flesh to me as I was helped to my feet, and dozens of people, everyone in the congregation, came forward to embrace me and hug me tight, and whisper in my ear their blessings and prayers. “I’m with you, you’re not alone.” “I pray God’s blessing on you.” “You are already a blessing to us, and we are so happy you’re here.” “Whatever you need, we will be there for you.” “We love you.” I felt their hands on my shoulders, their lips on my cheek, their tears of joy and welcome on my shoulder.

They are with me, and I am with them, and God is among us, wherever we are. In my short time in Honduras, I have seen the flowering of new projects and ideas, sparks of the Holy Spirit’s movement — among lay pastors studying to improve their care of their congregations, among women working to take over and renovate a spiritual retreat center for the benefit of all 26 Presbyterian churches here. I am learning also to reach out towards the warm spirit of caring that has been offered to me here. Nothing I do here will be alone. The Holy Spirit will be with me, embodied in the care and concern of hundreds of church members, the hospitality of strangers who have become family. I am learning to leave “alone” behind.

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

I’m usually goo-goo for Gaga, but …

I’m mulling these lyrics from Lady Gaga’s new album, Artpop, and trying to decide how upset I should be. I usually appreciate the Lady’s message about ownership of our identity and our bodies, and her own love-hate relationship with fame. This song, Do What U Want, opens with an indictment of the press for its attitude of ownership of stars.

And in the chorus, Gaga sings:

“You can’t have my heart
And you won’t use my mind but
Do what you want (with my body)
Do what you want with my body
You can’t stop my voice cause
You don’t own my life but
Do what you want (with my body)
Do what you want (with my body)”

I appreciate the ownership of mind, heart and voice that Gaga is celebrating, but I disagree that our bodies, women’s bodies, can be sacrificed with no consequences to psyche or emotional well-being. I think women must claim as much ownership of our bodies as we do of our minds and hearts. The one is as valuable as the others.

Will the message of the song be received in the “F-U” spirit is is given, or will the chorus be sung over and over with no sense of irony and attitude that is usually evident in Gaga offerings? I’m not sure. If her performance on Saturday Night Live with duet partner R. Kelly is any indication, Gaga is morphing the line between public and private life, and public and private bodily behavior. That conversation is one that needs to happen more often. I hope that women are encouraged to strive for harmony and not damaging disconnection between body and psyche.

The body of Christ, inked for you

In Sunday school at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church last week, we discussed body image and obscenity in relation to this campaign of YouTube videos and a related Texas billboard. Our discussion focused on the appropriateness of tattoos in society, mainly talking about growing popularity of tattoos (around a third of adults 18 to 34, including me, have one) and taboos, modern and ancient, on them. Is a tattooed Jesus appealing to us, or is this image grotesque and inappropriate?

However, I think the larger point of this ad campaign has nothing to do with tattoos per se. While I think there are problems with the campaign, particularly with video messages by Christians who claim they were miraculously cured of HIV/AIDS and depression solely with prayer, it speaks to our intimate and complicated relationship with our bodies. Our spiritual lives are not at all disembodied, despite millennia of post-Platonic theologies, and it is important to acknowledge this when trying to explain ourselves to non-Christians or trying to attract congregants to our churches.

We live through our bodies, and we experience not only sin but also salvation through our bodies, and through Christ’s body, ritualized in the Eucharist and Baptism. The video campaign’s promise that Jesus takes a away the marks on our bodies and souls and takes them on himself is at first glance heartening. However I am not sure that I am willing to apologize for the many marks that my life has left on my body and soul.

Also last week I read this blog post, Why Instagram Censored My Body | Petra Collins, about a woman who posted a picture of her bikini-clad non-airbrushed lower quarters. It made me think about the censorship that my church asks me to place on my body. In church I am afraid to speak about sex, homosexuality, tattoos, addiction, menstruation, femininity as an attribute of God, and numerous other topics because they are “worldly” or “of the flesh” or “obscene,” even if they are creations of God.

As a young woman who grew up in the mass market media world, my relationship with my body is one of the most influential aspects of my life. It is very easy to look in the mirror at my overweight face, weird body hair, acne, clinical depression, and spiral into self-loathing and equate this with loathing by God. If God made me depressed, does that mean God doesn’t love me as much as the next person? No. Absolutely not. Even the scars, mental and physical, show that I am human, created and loved by God. Christ, God embodied, suffers with me and gives me hope of future resurrection. For me to long for a mark-less life would be to wish for a relationship with God that is incomplete, a relationship that lacks humility.

Luke 18:9-14 describes a self-righteous Pharisee and a humble tax collector, a parable meant in some sense to illustrate that a mark-less life is not what you might think it is. The Pharisee, who suffered little and was not shunned by society, is taught a lesson about humility and drawing closer to God in times of trial and suffering. It is so easy to point to a suffering, isolated person and thank God that we are not like them, to see our privilege as God’s reward. But this parable tells us that God is near when we are actively seeking in humility and powerlessness. God lifts up the lowly because they are lowly.

More embodiment

2012 – Vagina Monologues. I had no idea what to expect. What I knew is that talking about sex and anatomy thereof made me feel anxious, naive and embarrassed. And I’ve never liked those feelings. Intellectually, I know that all human beings have some kind of sexual identity or desire. But, perhaps because of my upbringing or church background, I couldn’t feel that in my body, down to my core.

In my mission to practice embodiment for Lent, I chose to participate in my seminary’s production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“Experience of self as an active subject in history and experience of God as a liberator are a unity. It is in this deeply personal-and-religious dimension that women are caught up in new experiences, which when articulated move toward new speaking about God. … In struggle, in connectedness, in particularity, in the everyday round of life’s duties, in the love of self and other women, in the love of men in nonsubordinate ways, God is being experienced in new terms.” — Elizabeth Johnson, “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse”

After the production, I checked out some other secular-world shows via YouTube. They are uniformly provocative and sexy. Performing them in a sacred setting doesn’t make them any less provocative — in fact it probably makes them more provocative. Perhaps the most provocative for anyone in a Western culture church setting with embedded dualistic antithetical views of body and spirit is the message that our bodies — our female bodies — are loved by God. And we know this because our female bodies are loved by women.

In rehearsal, I learned to breathe and feel my feet touching the ground. I learned to look people in the eye. I learned to speak prayers with my bodily movements. I learned –not through the text, but through enacting — that God loves my body. Before one performance, a professor who was tasked with praying for the performance shared with me that she looked up at the spring sky and the huge 100-plus-year-old dome in the tower room where we were staging the show. She envisioned God standing above that dome, crouching down and giving birth to the world. We were performing in God’s vagina! I love that.

I’m now working on a Bible study of body images for women, and I’m considering making part of the study a writing exercise about vaginas. What’s great about your vagina? What might you be willing to share?

Embodiment for Lent: Isaiah speaks today

Filling up the place with some more embodiment: My assignment for the seminary’s Lent devotional series was Isaiah 58:3-9. My Old Testament professor made my heart go pitter-patter when she said she liked what I did. I shall recreate it here:

“Why do we give up chocolate, but you do not see?
Why do we Occupy, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest when you fast,
and loudly shout that you are the 99 percent.
I know you do it just to pick fights and make noise
and to let out some aggression.
This kind of self-righteousness
is lost in the din of the world.
Do I ask for indignation and self-pity?
Do I ask for blog posts and Tweets?
Is this really honoring me: Facebook memes?
Driving a hybrid? Shopping at Whole Foods?
Tagboard signs? Election bumper stickers?
Does God enjoy these outward symbols?

Doesn’t God seek this in our hearts:
to seek the just treatment of those enslaved by poverty, incarceration,
homophobia, xenophobia, violence, addiction, sexism, and hunger?
And not only that, but to end these scourges?
Isn’t this the right way, to give your best organic seven-grain loaf to the hungry,
and to bring the homeless poor into your home so they may sleep on your 1,200
thread-count sheets;
to give your REI-bought Marmot rainjacket to the cold, instead of crossing the
street when you meet a homeless brother or sister?
Only then will you truly see God
and be healed in your soul.
Your fears shall leave you, and you shall walk confidently in God’s presence.
You shall call, and God will answer in the voice of the poor;
you shall seek, and God will say, “Here I am.”