Tuesday, June 13, 2017

That Stage of Laughter

"...(R)elieved to be at the stage where she could laugh about it." 

I read the line again, from a David Sedaris essay in the New Yorker about living in system with addiction. His friend Ingrid was sharing a story about her father, having lost his driving privileges because of his alcoholism, rode a tricycle to the village pub. I commend the article, which you can read here

She had reached the stage where she could laugh.

Laughter, the deep, genuine laughter, is one of the stages of grief. The stage of redemption and resurrection that surprises us. 

Laughter, in some form, accompanies us through all our grieving. Different types of laughter. I knew exactly what Ingrid's laughter sounded like. 

Not the beginning laughter, when we are still shattered into so many pieces we're not sure if God will ever collect the shards and mold them back together in our souls, where we laugh because we're desperately fearful we'll never laugh again. So we laugh as we cry, or we laugh as a guardian for our weeping that will most surely spend the night and the next week and the next months or years.

Not the laughter that's tentative, because we are very focused on the intellectual explaining of all things traumatic and awful. That reasonable laughter that comes only through a forced smile and nod as we tell the person across the table from us, "Oh, it's not so bad. After all, God always has a reason, and the Alzheimer's has brought us all closer together," and we grip our coffee cup a bit tighter so we can say those words with any level of belief. Then, to add our imprimatur of forced truth, we end with a slight laugh. 

Not the laughter that's a downright lie, because we're so exhausted from the trauma and grief and sadness and we are quite sure our friends are tired of our wailing, so we laugh to pretend we're okay, to let them know we'll be okay, even when we are in the midst of the mud and sinking slowly into death.

Those types of laughter are all stages of grief, too. I've been there, offered every one of those laughs up as a prayer of desperation, lamenting, and I'm just done with this shit, God, so make something, anything, funny. 

And then one day, we laugh THAT laugh. It's got a bit more effervescence to it than the others. And it will always come when we least expect it. 

My laugh surprised me. The relief stage laugh usually does. While at a church conference, I encountered a priest who knew me when I was serving in a church where bullying and abuse were the course of the day. The diocese where we both served wasn't much better. 

We sat down and caught up. 

Then we remembered when. We recalled the stories and events and personalities of that time, none of which would be fodder for a "How to Do Church Appropriately and Safely" presentation by the Church Pension Group.

And we laughed. Because somewhere in the work of the Spirit, forgiveness and reconciliation with the past happened. We didn't need to hope for resurrection anymore; we were living it. Our laughter was the sound of life. We didn't need to explain intellectually how the church had cut into the tissue of our souls with a rusted knife and left us to bleed but that was "okay;" we had been wounded...and we had been healed. In fact, we showed our scars to each other, told more stories, and laughed some more. We didn't even have to pretend all of the trauma didn't happen. 

It did. It had. And we had broken through to the laughter of resurrection. 

I wondered, if after my encounter, I laughed because laughter was a way to minimize the pain. Maybe so, I thought. Then I read about Ingrid and her laughter.

And I knew. I knew the feeling and the sound of the laughter of relief when the past and its pain aren't curled around my soul, constricting the bubbles of the Spirit's laughter. I know that laughter is genuine, not denying our suffering but filling it with something of wisdom and experience instead of heaviness.

This laughter, this rush of the vivacious Spirit, is one of relief, that Jesus was right and forgiveness and reconciliation do come in their time. That time may be weeks or months or years. Often, this laughter comes after much hard work and self-reflection. This laughter is born in the mud and muck of grief that is experienced and not rationalized. Then, one day, we encounter our past in a surprising way.

And we may be relieved and surprised to be at that stage where we can laugh about it. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Light of Christ and the Flame of the Holy Spirit

Fifty days ago many of us gathered in a darkened place. Maybe outside in a church garden. Maybe the parking lot. Maybe the entrance lobby of the church. We gathered in that space between the end of Lent and Holy Week and the beginning of Easter.
The celebrant gathered us with words and prayer, reminding us on this most holy night, our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, and as a symbol of this new life, we kindled and blessed the New Fire.
The celebrant struck flint together to produce a spark, or maybe lit a match, or perhaps pushed a button on a nifty automatic lighter. And then kissed the raw material of wood or rock salt doused with alcohol or shavings or whatever kindling we holy people use with this flame, and the Light of Christ roared back into fullness.
We begin and end Easter with flame, with fire. The New Fire from the Easter Vigil appears again, new and wild, flickering and burning, as the fire of the Holy Spirit. The disciples, we read, were huddling in the Upper Room, probably fearful and unsettled. They were seemingly alone – again – without the physical manifestation of Jesus to guide them, to inspire them, to comfort them, and to challenge them.
Read the rest of this post celebrating Pentecost at 50 Days of Fabulous. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

For the Least of These

My Lenten discipline this year included living on the monthly amount a single adult receives for food assistance - $194 based on the latest information from the US Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Much like people on Survivor really aren't surviving in the wilds, given there's a camera crew, an out-of-site box where they can keep certain supplies, and an on-site medical team, I was not really existing on SNAP. I had a cabinet full of food to begin, and I had the financial resources that extended beyond $194 per month for food.

But I wondered what insights I have missed about hunger in our country.

What did I learn?

I became very aware of the cost of food, even using coupons and scouring ads for the best prices. Can anyone on a budget do that to make her/his food dollar stretch a bit more? Yes. But I have a car and gas money and a job that allows for me to shop at reasonable times to go to stores with the best prices. The stores with the lowest prices often sell out of needed food by Friday afternoon. I could work around that and shop on Wednesdays, when the sale circular came out. Many people cannot. I also became aware that while $194 may sound like a generous amount, it's not. That's about $45 a week, or a smidge over $6 per day. And in case you're wondering, the amount doesn't double for 2 people or triple for 3. It only increases slightly.

I became aware there are questions many of us never ask when we buy food or when we casually think people can get out of poverty simply by living on a budget (as if that will undo the system that helped them get there in the first place). What about the person who is feeding a family on limited income without gas money to go to more than one store? What about the person who lives in a food desert and doesn't have a car and must rely on public transportation? What about the person whose job (or more likely jobs) mean the only time to shop is at odd hours? And what about those who have medical restrictions on their diets? I can't even begin to ask all the questions that rolled through my mind every time I shopped.

I became more aware of the constant emphasis on food in our culture, especially in media. We advertise about food all the time. And we advertise about weight loss all the time. And super skinny people are in all these advertisements. I'm not sure what to make of all this, but America needs intensive therapy about our relationship with food and body image.

I became aware that good food is not cheap, and cheap food is the only thing some people on limited budgets can afford. Food in poorer parts of town is almost always more expensive. The food shaming we do in our country with those who make difficult food choices based solely on the dollars (or lack of them) they have in their pocket is unhelpful. Churches and faith communities would do well to work with local governments on this measure. I was impressed by my local community farmer's markets. I watch local farmers throw in a few extra veggies or negotiate prices for good produce for those with limited budgets on my regular trips to our farmers markets. Good farmers aside, access to healthy food choices by those on fixed incomes is limited.

What surprised me was my anxiety when I shopped. My previous grocery trips were often guided by a list of suggestions and forays into "Oh, this looks interesting."

But when I have a sum certain amount of money in an envelope that had to last for an entire month?

Grocery shopping became anxiety producing. I carefully added the costs of what went in my cart. I planned what I would need for each visit, and planned what I could do without if I'd missed a sale price. Again, while the idea of meal planning and budgeting is good, I get 8 hours of sleep and night and work one job. My health is good. My home is safe. The added stressors poverty brings are not present in my life, but the time to budget and plan took extra time out of my schedule and added some stress. Does a family in poverty have that extra time? Do they need more stressors?

At the end of a few grocery trips, some things went back on the shelf because what was in my cart exceeded my weekly budget. A particularly humbling moment happened one evening when a woman was replacing a box of macaroni and cheese from her cart on the shelf as well. She looked at me and said, "Maybe next month we can afford shells and cheese."

I felt like an interloper in that moment because I was. I could have afforded the shells and cheese. Her reality was different. And yet she extended grace to me. Those who are hungry indeed are often full of grace in ways those of us who are already filled are not.

I sat in my car an wept for a while after that encounter.

My anxiety about food was a self-inflicted discipline. But it was real. So how much more is the anxiety who live among us who struggle with enough to eat? And what do we as people of faith DO to help that anxiety? How do we who have enough respond to those who don't? And does our theology add to anxiety, or does it offer peace?

The language that exists in our national dialogue about poverty casts poverty as a moral failing of the people who are poor (our human explanation) instead of a moral failing of the culture and system in which those of us who are not poor support and sustain (something the Prophets tell us is true...hello Amos). Maybe those of us who haven't felt the anxiety of being food insecure, of being one illness away from eviction, and who aren't working too hard for too little need a framework to reward ourselves for our prosperity - a prosperity that may have as much to do with luck as hard work.

Poverty is not a moral failing anymore than wealth is a moral success. Are there people whose life decisions have created their financial distress? Yes. But I would remind us all there are people whose life decisions have created financial reward for themselves at the financial distress of others.

To see government decisions that strip away help for the poor says much about our collective compassion (or lack of it) for the least of these. To hear our own conversations about people who struggle to survive economically, conversations that contain words of blame and accusation says much about our relationship with the least of these. To hear our disdain for fellow citizens who are poor, the very ones Jesus loves, says much about how well we follow the teachings of our Lord.

This language, this theology, does not offer help or hope. It does not feed the hungry. And it is not in line with the teachings of Christ.

What does help, perhaps, is recognizing hunger is a real thing, and many of us are capable of feeding the hungry. Could you donate 10% of your monthly food budget to a local food bank? Could your church step-up its efforts in responding to hunger? Could you fast for one meal or one day each month, and give the money you would have spent to hunger relief agencies? And not giving what is left over from our tables, but the first fruits of our labors so all can share the meal of life.

But we can't stop there. Hunger is a systemic issue. How are faith communities addressing transportation issues so people can get to places to buy food? How are we confronting wage issues that keep people in poverty? How are we helping create places for food to be available in all neighborhoods in our towns and cities? How are we influencing government budgets that support (or cut) programs like school lunches and food assistance?

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America recently called for a fast and released a joint statement addressing hunger. You can read it here.

Jesus fed those who were hungry, literally and spiritually. Those of us who confess the faith of Jesus do not have an option to allow any person in our communities to go hungry. We are commanded by God and Christ to feed the hungry, to care of the poor, and to heal the world. This commandment is not absolved because we are elected to certain positions, because we choose to wrongly believe the poor get what they deserve, or because following it is inconvenient for us.

Jesus loved. He fed the hungry without inquiring as to what they had done to be hungry. That they were hungry was enough for him to act.

We as Christians must go and do likewise.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Listen to the Prophets

Prophets, by and large, did not have an easy go of it. Their calls to this ministry came with a deep sense of sacrifice. Jeremiah was quite unhappy about God calling him to prophetic ministry. Amos likely didn’t get invited to any of the cool kids’ parties after he called them cows of Bashan, and extra-canonical legend holds Isaiah was sawed in half in response to his prophecies.
We people of God don’t particularly care for prophets. Our ancestors dismissed them. They called them names and ignored them or engaged in character attacks.
To read the rest of this post, click here to go to 50 Days 0f Fabulous.