Category Archives: Grace

Watchnight…

The New Year has arrived and I ushered it in quietly by taking dinner to a friend who is sick, and an early champagne toast before turning in around 10 pm.  As I laid in bed thinking about my ‘lame’ middle-aged celebration, my mind wandered to the more active festivities of past New Years.  Growing up in a pastor’s home in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, many New Year’s Eve celebrations involved jigsaw puzzles until about 11:00 pm, then a mad dash to the church for a Watchnight service.

While in reality it was probably only an hour or so, to a child, those services spent largely on our knees at the altar seemed to stretch on endlessly.  The focus of the service seemed to be anticipation of the second coming of Christ, and prayers swelled up around the altar by those calling “Even so, come Lord Jesus”, those repenting of their as-of-yet unforgiven sins, and those bemoaning the misery of this life led as resident aliens–Christians living in a world of sinful people.  Mom was at the piano playing ‘mood music’, and my father stood alongside the altar, occasionally placing a gentle hand on the shoulder of someone who was struggling in prayer–a grace-full nudge into the kingdom.  I would kneel alongside the adults, my forehead pressed against the wood of the altar railing, my hands covering my eyes lest my father see me staring about.

I remember glancing up from between my fingers at the clock on the back wall of the sanctuary.  My anxiety rose the closer we got to midnight.  Somehow I assumed that mid-night was the ‘ground zero’ for Jesus’ imminent return.  If confession of sins was going to happen–it needed to be NOW.  I’d rack my brain trying to remember any sins I’d committed, and failing to do so, would simply pray “if there is anything I’ve done I haven’t named, please forgive me.”  It was my rapture insurance policy: my special brand of deathbed conversion.  Then I’d watch the clock tic and wonder if it was sincere enough… or if my wondering that was its own form of sin… then I’d confess my doubt.  And anxiously wait for midnight to hit… to see whether or not Jesus was going to show up and judge me.

Almost midnight.

Almost midnight.

I always experienced a bizarre sense of relief that our prayers hadn’t ‘worked’. And then I began to wonder why in the world we’d pray for such an apocalyptic moment to come sooner rather than later… And the services became meaningless.  And as an adult, I abandoned them altogether.

But today is the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation.  Watchnight service has significance and history in the African-American community in the United States, since many slaves were said to have gathered in churches on New Year’s Eve, in 1862, to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, on January 1, 1863. My friend Troy Underwood describes that first Watchnight gathering  as a time “where slaves watched slavery go out and freedom come in. Though freedom didn’t happen immediately, we continued to press our way. The African-American church continues the tradition for justice.”

And now I long for a Watchnight service which points to the coming of Christ as the liberation from bondage and slavery; where ‘heaven’ isn’t reserved for a pipe-dream, but instead is realized in the here-and-now; and where hope is alive and has material implications.

A cold neighbor

It is snowing in Chicago, and I’m indoors, observing the flakes from the warmth and safety of a comfy chair.  I’ve watched folks trudging down the streets, fighting the wind and cold, and have offered up murmurs of thanksgiving for a cup of hot tea, and the cat warming my lap.  My mind wandered back to a day a couple of years ago when I had an early 8 am dentist appointment one Saturday.  I’d walked to the dentist (a mere five blocks from my home), but while in the chair, a heavy snow storm hit.  Winds picked up.  It was near white-out at times.

When I left the dentist’s office, my face was numb: not only from the bitter wind, but also from the anesthesia I’d been given.  It had been a lengthy procedure, wherein old fillings from a childhood overseas were removed (having been deemed of poor quality) and replaced with more modern, quality material.  As I crossed the threshold out into the wintry mess, I wiped drool from the side of my cheek.  Ugh.  My eyes had watered during the procedure, and I was very aware of the mascara smudged beneath my eyes.  The sting of the wind was making my eyes water more.

I trudged the first block through about 8 inches of freshly fallen snow.  Beautiful, really.  But I’d not gone prepared, and my tennis shoes were slick and full of snow.  I glanced up and saw a man walking my direction and thought great… another one of the neighborhood’s homeless… expecting a handout.

As he approached I attempted to not make eye contact.  But he called out to me: “Lady?”  I glanced his way.

“Lady… you look really cold.  Could I buy you a sandwich? Or a cup of hot coffee?”  He pointed at the McDonald’s nearby.  And I stood there, gaping at the irony of my situation.  I mumbled a thank you, and he led me by the hand over a drift and into the restaurant.  I accepted a cup of coffee, and had an interesting conversation with someone from the neighborhood I would never have otherwise met.

He graciously mentioned that it was his faith tradition to help the poor and those in need.  I asked him what church he attended, and he pointed to the local mosque.  I smiled and mentioned I was baptist.  We rejoiced in the commonalities which bridge our faith, our neighborhood, and the human condition.

Winter in the city.

Winter in the city.

 

re-post: Observations of the divine…

This prayer was originally posted on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  It has been my mantra these last days.

 

new every morning is Love
and all day long it works for good in the world
it stirs up in us a desire to serve
and to live peaceably
and to devote our days to walking in ways which are life-giving

blessed be.

A pedagogy of the poor (part I)

I’ve an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine about the role of the church vs. the state when it comes to the poor.  Neither of us belong at all in the category ‘poor’–she is of an upper middle class white family who owns property, and has a graduate level education; I am a single middle class woman with graduate level education and a full time job. We tend to talk past each other when the subject of poverty arises, both getting defensive.  We’ve argued our own sides to the point of offending each other, then back off cautiously as neither of us wants to ruin a friendship.  At times I suspect we are closer in our opinions than we imagine, but I doubt we’ll ever completely see eye to eye on it.  I wonder if my status somehow as a TCK (third culture kid), particularly as one who grew up in the third world, however, colors how I understand the poor, as well as the potential role of government and church.

The fundamental divide, it seems, between her perspective and mine (and if she reads this, and I’m incorrect, she should correct me and help me better understand) is that she tends to think of the poor as ‘individuals in need of help’.  I’m uncertain if it is economic status, educational privilege, or mere ‘Americanism’ which posits her in the position of being the benevolent agent in these scenarios.  When she describes government subsidies and/or welfare, she regales me with stories of abuse: instances where entitlement is assumed and laziness is writ large.  I am unclear as to why it is that I react to her descriptions and responses with defense: as if I’m certain it is against me or my family that she’s making accusations or judgments.  Perhaps it is because I spent my childhood accepting handouts and gifts as missionaries, forever relying upon the proverbial kindness of strangers.

What must be equally accounted for is the fact that she accuses me of idealizing the poor. Whereas I hear her complaints against abuse accompanied by a tone of indignation (“the poor are stealing from me”), she hears my defense of the poor as coming through rose-colored lenses (a noble people, struggling in a noble fight).  It is likely the case that I do tend to idealize the poor, although I try to guard against it.  You be the judge.

John Steinbeck purportedly wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Indeed, it seems that the American dream is alive and well–upward mobility is assumed to be an option, indeed assumed to be a good, and a failure to be poor (our value, intelligence, morals, etc. based on our economic status).  Not only is it assumed that we can move up, but it is our responsibility to move up. Kurt Vonnegut commented: “It is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” ”

I’m unwilling, however, to assume that the American middle class is everyone’s ideal.  The underpaid working class seems to be caricatured into either  comic ‘redneck’ or as merely unwilling-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps ‘lazy’ (or some mixture of both). Might it be the case that for those able-bodied poor who never shift into the ranks of ‘middle class’, the drummers’ cadence marches them to other ends?  Or that they never imagined their world to be otherwise? Or….

I believe the poor have many gifts for those of us who aren’t poor, but only if we are willing to have our eyes opened to critique.  What we learn is more often about ourselves than it is about the poor (much in the same way that African-Americans can teach me what it means to be white, because I function within the haze of privilege, oblivious to the graces and opportunities my skin color affords me.)  These are a people with feet in both worlds (knowing what it is like to function on very limited resources, but also living within the ubiquitous aspirations and standards of the wealthy.)  The media spreads the gospel of the upper middle class, wherein needs are not only met but excess is normative.  We are thus trained to accumulate, to stuff our selves and our homes (this coming from an overweight woman just days after thanksgiving!), regardless of economic status or class.

 

The burden of poverty

I overheard the following speculation about the fast-approaching winter weather between two of my colleagues at the office: “One nice thing about winter in Chicago…there aren’t as many homeless around begging for money.” His conversation partner nodded in agreement.  They proceeded to discuss how it was hard to walk down the sidewalk at times without being accosted by beggars.  The usual “they are just going to buy drugs and alcohol” meme was repeated.  These gentlemen parted company as I made my way to the coffee machine.  I found myself suddenly conscience about the spare change I was using to get that cup of coffee.  I muttered something to the effect that the homeless weren’t migratory birds.  That elicited some harsh looks and one colleague said “You know what I mean… the homeless are a pain.”

I was stunned.  Yes. I know exactly what he meant.  We’ve become so very self-sufficient that we view poverty as a burden upon the wealthy.  How’s that for turning economics and logic on its head? It isn’t the poor who are burdened by their poverty: it is the wealthy who are inconvenienced, temporarily made to feel guilty, and are forced into being arbiters of stewardship and grace.  The poor just have to be poor.  (Read that as lacking agency, autonomy, etc.).  It is their ontology.

Augh!

I said it before but it bears repeating here: When Jesus said in Matt. 26:11 that “the poor will always be among us”, it was not to let us off the hook and give us permission to ignore them because it’s a problem which just won’t go away. It was an instruction that we always have to consider the poor: plan to tend to them, make charity and generosity part of our daily lives.

In this particular season, remembering the words “the poor will always be among us” is to remember that their lack of visibility isn’t an indicator that poverty is being eradicated: to the contrary, the poor are dying to find shelter–quite literally.

To my grousing, nibbling colleagues who are making upwards of $100K, I ask you to learn to unburden yourselves of poverty, and instead embrace the burden of wealth (which is properly yours anyway).  Lay aside your claims to self-sufficiency and learn to recognize that the position you are in was not self-made. Be grateful for those who gave you a break: for parents who provided a home, guidance, an education; for health–both mental and physical; for employers who took a risk in hiring you for that first job; for congregations who provide you a spiritual home.  Remember that you didn’t earn everything you have.  Grace was afforded you when you least deserved it. Be an extension of that grace to others.

Foxes have holes…

Luke 9:58: “Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head.”

When Jesus said in Matt. 26:11 that “the poor will always be among us”, it wasn’t to let us off the hook and give us permission to ignore them because its a problem which just won’t go away. It was an instruction that we always have to consider the poor: plan to tend to them, make charity and generosity part of our daily lives. (Photo taken on the way to my office today…)

Looking compassion on the world…

I recently struck up a friendship with a man who loves people.  By that, I don’t mean he’s particularly social (although he enjoys going out).  I mean he delights in people.  At first I thought it was a hoax.  (You are taking to a woman who once bought a two-seater car for the sole purpose of NOT having to give people rides.)  No one is that nice.  But this man–he loves people. He is amused when folks overreact.  He smiles when someone shows their worst snarky side, and marvels at the humanity of us all.   He loves life in ways I never have, but always wanted to.

He is far from perfect, but acknowledges his own foibles and in doing so, allows others to do the same.  He sees the imperfect, perfectly. And because he loves people, people adore  him.  He not only makes them love him, but he makes them loveable–to themselves and those all around.

I was recently asked to be the liturgist at my local church, and was asked to read this piece by St. Theresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

As I spoke aloud “Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world” my mind immediately turned to my friend who sees the good in everyone, and reflects that good like a thousand mirrors- in endless repetition.

I want to learn to love people that way: to see them with the eyes of Christ.  I want to learn to look compassion on the world. 

Tough love…

Yesterday was the Pride Parade in Chicago and I attend with an agenda in mind: 1) to lend my voice of love and acceptance and celebration to the throngs of people who will be ‘Out and About’, and 2) to bear witness to a different way of being Christian–documenting on film for anyone who stumbles across this blog that there are churches who welcome you and support you, in all your fullness and complexity.

To those ends, I offer the following witness to love:

The Hill Family (clergy–United Methodist)

Rev. Jacki Belile, clergy, American Baptist Church–USA

The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Churches in Chicago.

A sea of banners announcing the churches who are welcoming and affirming.

My own church’s banner.

What a powerful statement of trust: it is a robust pneumatology indeed.

It is an amazing statement to those who’ve spent their lives excluded by the church, to be celebrated by the church on their own terms!

But to the churches who practice so-called “tough love” by condemning homosexuality  and homosexuals in the name of Jesus, I offer a word of caution: Gay people aren’t beating down your church doors, wanting to get in.  There are options, as evidenced here.  When you, in the name of Jesus, preach judgment and condemnation, stop and think who it is you are preaching to: your own.  It is only your own closeted gay children who even attempt to stay in the hostile environment that is your church–whether out of conviction or nostalgia.  The rest will find places where they are celebrated and welcomed and love flows freely.  They will surround themselves with life-giving people, in life-giving places.

The only ones you exclude are your own.

The flirt

male
female
matters not

this is neither sexual nor gendered

he sees the divine and calls it forth
with eye contact
or a tip
a friendly smile
a casual gesture

the invocation that rolls off his tongue
is music to the ears

the recipient: caught off guard and delighted
to be included in the beauty he pronounces

it is production
performative

the average joe is sanctified under his gaze

It is grace.

A simple act…

We’d never spent that much time together
and were nervous about the weekend.
But all it took was a simple act–
a bowed head
a reminder of grace and gift
and I was hooked.