Prophetic Hope

Today was the first Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season that Christians consider the start of a new year, as well as a time of preparation for Christmas, the birth of the Christ child. While the radios have been playing Christmas-y songs (whether religious or just “festive”) for quite a while now, Advent is a different creature all together, in which the emphasis is on waiting … preparation … the quiet readying of home and heart to receive new life. People who aren’t churchy might assume that churches would go all-out Christmas as soon as possible, but in fact most don’t. In the various lectionaries (schedules of biblical readings, basically), the first Sunday of Advent usually includes the writings (rantings?) of an Old Testament prophet, with an emphasis on their awareness of the brokenness of the world (back then … and now). In the lectionary my church follows, the main reading for today was from the prophet Habakkuk, starting with the classic prophetic lament (or maybe complaint is a better word): “How long, O Lord?!” That’s not a sentiment that plays much on the shopping mall soundtrack, is it?
 
My sermon title for Advent 1 was “Prophetic Hope,” and together the congregation and I discussed the fact that the prophet’s task was and is to speak the truth to the people, and call them back to following God’s call to justice, mercy, love of neighbor, and that sort of thing. Basically, the prophet’s role is to remind God’s people how messed up things are in our reality, to contrast that reality with God’s dream for the world, and to call us to work as God’s partners to achieve that dream to the benefit of all of us. 
All of this was on my mind this gray morning as I left home and drove to church to preach that sermon. I have been wrestling with how to bring some of that Advent hope into my heart in this troubling age, and as I listened to ethereal music (Advent at Ephesus, if you were wondering), I thought about how peaceful it might be to simply take a break from keeping up with the news with its horrors and despair. And I have to say, that idea appealed to me … but I also know that it’s a sign of my tremendous privilege to even have the possibility of averting my eyes from our corrupt and destructive national leadership, and the waves of hatred, disrespect, and violence that ripple outwards from that center. As a white, well-educated, heterosexual woman, I am protected from being directly harmed by the bigotry that makes life dangerous for those who are not from my background. In my heart of hearts, I know that closing my eyes to that reality might be comforting, but it would be a betrayal of the humanity of all of those who are not inside my protected bubble of privilege.
Anyway, as I pulled off at Exit 3 to quickly grab some supplies I needed from the grocery store, the first thing I saw was this banner advertising a gun show. Image-7
The contrast with the peaceful music I was listening to was stark. The banner was big and bold (and illegally placed, I might add ~ the roundabout is public property, and in Vermont signs can’t be placed willy-nilly), and given the never-ending news stories of gun violence in our nation, I was awash in disbelief that anyone thinks that what the world needs is MORE firepower. But I’m quite sure that some of the people who go to that gun show will be being weapons as Christmas gifts.
Ah, Advent, there you go again, reminding me that it’s not time to jump into Christmas joy or to indulge my own wish for a break from all of the awfulness. It is time to speak the truth: the world is in an awful way right now, with our lush and satisfying hatreds, our access to lethal weapons, our mistreatment of the environment and each other, and descent into a spirit of cynicism. It is time to be of good courage. It is time to notice where we can make a difference, shine a light on evil, and tear down oppressive systems that harm any of God’s beloved creatures.  In Advent, the prophets call us to a challenging hope – not a Pollyanna-is optimism, but rather a clear-eyed assessment of the truth about ourselves and our world, and a commitment to work together as God’s partners in healing, mending, and sustaining the world.
The prophets don’t make it easy on us. They demand a great deal. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m up to the task of being God’s partner in the repairing of the world, but I’m grateful to them for reminding me that I need to try. Image-8
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Addiction and Connection

On August 31, I participated in a small vigil honoring international overdose day — organized to remember and mourn those lost to addiction, to honor the full humanity of those caught in addiction, and to begin to lift the stigma and silence on surviving family and friends. The vigil, which was pulled together by Laura Lynette Chapman and Tammy Lynn and many others who worked with them, was moving from beginning to end, but the thing that stood out most to me was a brief speech made by a young man who is a peer educator at Turning Point (and whose sister, sadly lost to an overdose last year, used to work at our restaurant). He told his own story of addiction and recovery, and also quoted Johan Hari (the author of “Chasing the Scream,” which you MUST read, by the way), saying that “the opposite of addiction is connection.”

On September 11, as I remember, I think about that human need for meaningful connection. Our world is addicted — to drugs, yes, but also to power, to prestige, to tribalism, to the pursuit of wealth, to racism and misogyny, to environmental destruction, just to name a few of our shared broken places. I believe our human calling is to build community and share connections that can lift us from those addictions.

Kids Today

In the wake of this week’s well-publicized walk-outs at schools around the country, I made the mistake of reading comments on the social media stories covering the events. Not surprisingly, this was not the path to personal internal peace. I read comments about how disrespectful and uninformed “kids today” are. Ironically, most of those comments were made in incredibly inflammatory language, dismissive tones, and with a real lack of actual information about the viewpoints and knowledge bases of the kids they were pillorying. In fact, many of those making grand statements about the walk-out at BUHS acknowledge that they did not attend it, so their information is based on video clips, photos, and hearsay.

I usually try to restrain myself from reading and responding to comments in those settings, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Though I generally try to be reflective more than reactive, I’m quite sure that my own knee-jerk responses to this sort of commentary were just as blood-pressure-elevating to people who disagree with me. There’s just something about the comments section that seems to bring out the worst in all of us, deepening the already daunting divide that runs right up the middle of American society these days.

I understand that the moral/ethical/political viewpoint of the students who walked out will not be shared by everyone. That’s the great thing: we don’t have to agree on all matters. Still, I would like to call my fellow citizens to a stance of respect for those who are trying to impact the dialog. I wanted to respond to three very basic types of comments I read. I categorize these disparaging remarks as “Tide Pods,” “Walk Up / Not Out,” and “What do they know about anything?”

1) Tide Pods: A surprising number of comments I read were along the lines of “These same kids were eating Tide Pods two months ago. Suddenly they’re serious students of public policy who are capable of organizing their own protest?” I get it: the big story in January that there was a trend of young teens eating laundry detergent on a dare didn’t inspire trust in the maturity and intelligence of those who were doing the eating.  The fact that the BUHS walk-out was coordinated incredibly well by three smart young women who got the word out through social media and abided by the limits set by the school administration (who did not help to carry it out or indoctrinate the kids to do so) shows me that these kids are learning a great deal about the US Constitution and their own civil rights, about the ways in which societal change has historically been effective through non-violent civil disobedience, and about the fact that knowing their stuff is critical if they’re to bring about change.

Sure, teenagers are capable of doing some foolish things. Here’s what, though: in every generation, some kids have experimented in obviously stupid, life-endangering activities that have the left the older generations scratching our heads. The only difference is that now, in the 24-hour news cycle, the rest of us hear it again and again, making it seem like a trend regardless of how few kids have actually participated. In spite of what we may all have read, the vast majority of teenagers have never eaten Tide Pods, and have no intention of doing so.

2)Bullying/walk up: It certainly is our communal obligation to teach each emerging generation to be kind and compassionate, to stick up for those being bullied, and to be as inclusive as possible. But when adults say, “Walk Up … Not Out” as a way of preventing mass shootings at school, that’s putting the burden of safety on students’ shoulders. Once again, in every generation, there have been bullies. (What, for instance, do you think it was like to be a non-athletic, effeminate boy in schools in the 1950s, just to give one example?) And yet, even in an age where actively teaching kids not to be bullies wasn’t yet a regular occurrence, you didn’t see bullied kids shooting up their schools with far-too-powerful weapons.

Furthermore, it seems from the comments that I’ve read that at least some of the very same people who are saying “walk up” are the ones who are absolutely cruel in their comments about the homeless/begging population in downtown Brattleboro. If you want your kids to “walk up” to the outcasts, you had better be showing them how it’s done, walking up in kindness to the people who are clearly not thriving in our town. If you have nothing but scorn for those folks, don’t expect your children to do any better.

3) “They don’t know what they’re talking about/they’re just following the crowd”: In response to this, I want to ask, “have you gotten to know these kids?” If you’re someone who says these kids are just mindless lemmings, walking out to be cool or to miss a few minutes of school, I challenge you to reach outside your comfort zone and actually talk to some of them. Don’t hurl insults; actually talk and, yes, listen. Let them know you care about their experiences. If their arguments lack nuance, offer them questions and information that might help them to think more deeply. Furthermore, show up! Show up at their games, their art shows, their dramatic productions and concerts. Admire their work during Student Art Month and at the Scholastic presentation at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, and at New England Youth Theatre and In-Sight Photography Project. See what they’re doing in their attempts to get a skate park in town, or where they’re volunteering. Talk to them at Memorial Park at the rink or the slope. See how much work they are putting into producing excellence. Kids across the whole political spectrum are doing really cool things, both in school and in the wider community.

I’m glad some of those really engaged kids feel empowered and impassioned enough to plan the walk-out. I’m glad that those who didn’t want to participate felt comfortable staying in school. I hope that those two groups of kids can still talk with one another, because dialog is the key to overcoming some of these huge cultural divides.

As for me, the walk-out gave me hope, which has been in short supply lately. This generation nipping at the rest of our heels has learned some powerful lessons about what they value and what they won’t tolerate. They are strong, courageous, flawed like the rest of us, and getting ready to make some real impact.

Kids today.

I think they’re pretty awesome.

 

Fear Masquerading

fear masquerading

My friend Stephanie took this picture yesterday, which was her view during her commute as she listened to radio coverage with interviews of students who survived the latest mass school shooting in our fair land, and stories of those who didn’t.

My first reaction to seeing her Facebook post was to feel deeply disturbed, although I suppose there’s something to be said for rage that is so right out there. Maybe that’s better than the same rage hiding behind politeness?

My next thought, though, was this: “What on earth does the owner of this truck need to feel so pissed about?” He clearly has the money to buy a truck and weapons, which don’t come cheap. I know nothing about his particular life, but I do know that there still are undeniable advantages in being white, male, and heterosexual. Why is this guy so angry?

But here’s what: someone who has been so steeped in our culture of toxic masculinity may never have been taught to examine his emotions. He may have been trained so fully to never admit vulnerabilities that he is incapable of correctly labelling what’s going on inside of him. Yes, I suppose he really is pissed at the world. But, more than that, I suspect he’s afraid. And fear does terrible things to people.

As a minister, as I work my way through the scriptures each year, I’m always struck by the frequency with which angelic messengers begin pretty much every single interaction with humans in the same way: “Fear not!” (Okay, sometimes they go with “BEHOLD!” … but most often they’re put together: “Fear not, for behold!…”) While I am not a biblical literalist, I take seriously the fact that we can learn a great deal about God and humanity by studying what’s in the books of the Bible, and one thing I have learned is that over the millennia that the stories cover, a whole lot of humans were fearful enough to warrant being addressed with words designed to minimize fear. We humans are prone to fear, it would seem, and the divine forces of love (epitomized by the angels, I suppose) want very much for us to be free of that fear because it clouds our minds and clenches our fists, and upsets our stomachs and hardens our hearts.

I suspect the owner of this truck is afraid. He’s afraid of suddenly living in a world where his power is disputed. He’s afraid of people taking what he feels is rightly his, be it his guns or his position in society. He’s afraid that the economy won’t have enough room to support him and the people he loves, he’s afraid there won’t be enough: enough jobs, enough land, enough meaning, enough security.

He’s not the only one who’s afraid, of course. I am, too. Far too many of our young people are, too ~ literally afraid to go to school. We’re all caught in a terrible cycle where fear begets anger, anger begets violence, violence begets more fear.

I admit that I don’t know the way out. This culture of toxic masculinity is a big part of the problem, but the men I know haven’t given in to it, by and large. The men I love (my husband and sons, my father, brothers, nephews, and in-laws, their teachers, our neighbors, my parishioners … so many wonderful men!) have managed to come through life without being stained by that poison, so I know it’s possible. I just don’t know what to do about it.

That’s right … all of this rambling, and no real solution. I just think that if we could edit the dude’s window sticker to read “White, Straight, Armed, and Afraid,” we’d be a lot closer to a solution.

 

 

Aftermath

The aftermath of a snowstorm is
heavy lifting, heart-pounding work,
interrupted by warming breaks
and moments of quiet appreciation
for the sparkling wonder and glory
of it all.

And then more heavy lifting,
as the plows return the piles
you’ve already worked through,
but which time and temperature,
salt and machinery
have reconfigured into icy chunks –
heavier than before, maybe,
but moveable in larger blocks
if you have the strength to muscle through.
And still, there is a crystalline, transformative beauty
for those with eyes to see.

The aftermath of loss is similar.

 

(written February 8, 2018)

“Grief, Doubt, Hope, Choice” ~ an Easter Sermon

Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno

Westminster West, Vermont

April 16, 2017 (Easter morning)

Luke 24: 1-12

 

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

 

Have you ever been called a heretic? I have. More than once, actually. I mean, it’s not as though it comes up often, but it has happened a few times over the years.

Interestingly, the times I’ve been called a heretic, it hasn’t been because of what I believe about God or Jesus or even anything esoteric like the Trinity, but rather the fact that I believe it’s A-okay for women to be ministers. So, yeah, my obvious deviation from an archaic human rule has been what has raised the ire of a few fellow Christians along the way. They claimed to be not trying to insult me, you’ll be glad to know, but to protect you. They were just so concerned, because I am endangering your souls by leading you all to hell, you see. (So … my apologies for your eternal perdition?) No, seriously, it’s not a point I’ve ever bothered to argue with one of them. I mean, really, if they believe that, there’s not a lot I can do to convince them otherwise.

Oddly, even though I know that I hold fundamentally different beliefs from anyone who would even think to use that word as an insult, it still stings. Somehow, being called a rebel kind of appeals to me, but being called a heretic gets under the skin. It has a mysterious power to wound me.

I actually haven’t thought about the sting of the “H” word in a while, but it came up in an on-line conversation yesterday, as a Lutheran colleague of mine posted on Facebook that she had had that word hurled at her by a female worshiper at an ecumenical Good Friday service in Massachusetts.  It grabbed my attention, and sent me to the dictionary to learn more about it. There’s something so empowering about learning about words – perhaps especially those that are used against a person – and this case was no different.  Do you know the etymology of the word heretic?:

“one who holds a doctrine at variance with established or dominant standards,” mid-14c., from Old French eretique (14c., Modern French hérétique), from Church Latin haereticus “of or belonging to a heresy,” as a noun, “a heretic,” from Greek hairetikos meaning – are you ready? – “able to choose.”

Did you hear that? Going back to its roots, a heretic is one who is able to choose. Who knew?

I want to spend a little time with the our scripture passage for the morning, Luke’s gospel account of the women at the tomb. I remember a few years back when my smarty-pants brother responded to my writing about Good Friday by saying, “Spoiler alert: it ends well.” But it’s easy to forget that for those people who had been with Jesus for the three years of his ministry, that “happy ending” of resurrection wasn’t anything like obvious. The women went to the tomb, as Luke tells us, fully intending to carry out the ritual cleansing and other preparations that their religion required be done for all dead bodies. They didn’t go there expecting resurrection – I have to assume they approached the tomb in deep grief, because the leader they loved and in whom they had placed their hopes had been killed before their very eyes, in the most gruesome and humiliating way. They may well have been fearful, too, that Rome had eyes and spies everywhere. Caring tenderly for the body of a man who had been publicly executed for treason was something that would have required courage.

That’s right – on a day that, knowing the outcome, we think of as a day of jubilation from start to finish, it can be hard to remember that it started out in the shadows of early dawn, with a combination of grief and steely-eyed courage – the kind of courage that only came to the women, who were already marginalized on so many levels that they had little to lose. They simply didn’t worry about their own safety and just set about getting the job done. Then came puzzlement – which might be the understatement of the year, as the massive stone had been rolled away, and the body of their beloved friend was missing. Then terror – they were terrified, Luke tells us – at the sudden apparition of two dazzling strangers. So … grief, courage, puzzlement, terror … and then perhaps more puzzlement, as the strangers spoke in riddles, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That’s a great question, isn’t it?

And then … they remembered. The women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women) remembered … it’s as if all of those overwhelming feelings – the grief, confusion, terror, exhaustion – all of those feelings clouded their minds up until the moment that they were asked the clarifying angelic question – why do you look for the living among the dead? – and suddenly they remembered that they had a choice. They remembered everything Jesus had taught them, how he had shown his love through action … how he had explained complex truths through parables that didn’t require rigid literalism but instead led to belief through human connection. They remembered that he was unbound by the societal norms and religious legalism of his age … that he was unconstricted by the separations that divide people from each other … they remembered that God is present even when God seems very, very absent.

The women had a choice – to go back to the business as usual way of living, or to live as people who had tasted the Living Water and need never thirst again. They were, in the original sense, heretics – people able to choose. And they chose the Way of Christ, and the fact that the male disciples didn’t think much of their “idle tales” didn’t matter at all. They knew grief, then doubt, fear, then hope, and then they remembered. They made their choice.

Here is my truth: I may be a heretic, but the stories of Holy Week matter to me, and very deeply. In a world that is steeped in sorrows – with injustice, gun violence, and mistreatment of children and the earth, with toxic water in our cities and leaking pipelines in our sacred places, with massive bombs and threats of more – in a world like our world, it can be easy to believe that Empire will always be dominant. I choose to believe differently. Our Holy Week stories show the ways in which, illogical as it may seem, with Jesus, vulnerability becomes strength … love trumps hate … the Kin-dom of God is more powerful than Empire … and death itself is conquered.

The people who have called me a heretic have meant it badly, to be sure. They have meant that I don’t have a grasp of the truth because of my failure to take literally what I believe Jesus meant to be more than literal (not less than literal).  Does that make me a  heretic? I am, after all, “able to choose,” and I choose to believe the Truth of the resurrection, which is that ultimately, as Anne Lamott puts it “grace bats last” … Love Wins.

In fact, we all have choices. We can continue to look for the living among the dead, or we can remember and choose resurrection … Like the women, we can be emboldened to tell the story fearlessly, and then live as if it really is true.

(And you, are you a heretic, too?)

Of Bread and Body

In today’s “Still Speaking Devotional,” written by Donna Schaper, readers ponder Jesus saying, “This bread is my body.” As a pastor and a Christian, my mind goes straight to the next part of that phrase: “… which is broken for you.”

Here’s what: I never asked for Jesus’ body to be broken for me. This gift, if that’s what it is, feels like a heavy one, and not always one I’m eager to embrace.

As hospice chaplain, I spend a lot of time with people whose bodies are failing them. Those who are cogent will often express a sense of betrayal, almost ~ that those bodies which have allowed them to be independent and “up and doing” for so long are letting them down. People who have lived with disability or pain for a long time are less surprised by this than those who have never thought of themselves as only temporarily able bodied, of course.

So, what might it mean for a person to hand themselves over for their body to be broken on behalf of others whom they love? And what does it mean for those beloved to accept that brokenness as a mode of healing? And then there’s the hardest question for me: how could God send God’s most beloved Son to be broken for me and for the sins of the world? What kind of God would demand that ~ would allow that?

Holy Week asks us to wrestle with these questions. And it is in Holy Week that I always come to the point of understanding at last how critical an understanding of Holy Trinity is to me. In Trinitarian theology, Jesus isn’t “just” God’s son ~ Jesus is a manifestation of God, I guess you could say. So it’s not as though God delegates God’s less powerful offspring to break in the face of human suffering and wrongdoing. God sends part of Godself to break, which, through the awesome power of love, will heal us all.

I don’t claim it makes sense to a dualistic human mind, but I know that this truth is powerful beyond human knowing.

 

 

The Woman at the Well (Part the Second)

… in which the scriptural reflection is turned into something that could, conceivably, be sung. I chose the metre 8686, which means it could be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace” among many other tunes. I actually think “House of the Rising Sun” works well, capturing something of the despair mixed with hope.

High noon. All’s quiet at the well.

The merciless sun beats down.

My thirst is deep, I have no choice,

At least I’ll be alone.

But – not alone! – a man waits there

A man – a Jew, what’ more.

I want to turn and head back home,

But thirst won’t be ignored.

This man has nothing in his hands:

No bucket, rope or cup.

Tradition calls me to fear him,

But I, too, have known thirst.

He asks for water. I cannot

refuse his human need.

My thirst is deeper – I need peace,

forgiveness, and release.

“Come drink now from the Living Stream,”

the stranger says to me!

“The well is deep, it never ends.

You’ll never thirst again.”

I do not know where he came from,

but I will heed his call.

“Behold, the Living Water flows,

Come drink and thirst no more!”

So, there you have it. I won’t be giving up my day job anytime soon, but this was a fun exercise!

The Woman at the Well (Part the First)

Well … my Lenten writing discipline has been going okay in the sense that I’ve been doing it more or less faithfully. But it hasn’t been particularly related to my intention re: The Kingdom of God. In fact, it’s been all over the place, which may say something about my own state at the moment. I hope to be more disciplined in the future, but I also know myself. Alas.

Last summer, when the boys and I were on pilgrimage with the Iona Community, I took a brief workshop on writing as a form of ministry. Though there is certainly a limit to what can be taught and experienced in a two-hour workshop that’s interrupted by the all-important tea break, it was a fascinating nudge in the direction that I feel called to explore a bit more.

One of the avenues for faith-based writing involved thinking about songwriting. I had never given much thought to how that’s done, and so was fascinated by the process. We each chose a story from the Bible, wrote a first-person account of it in our own words, and then were encouraged to write a metered form of it that might conceivably be singable, looking at rhythms, rhymes (or not), syllabification, and that sort of thing.

I decided to engage with the passage I chose years ago as my ordination scripture: John 4: 1-30, where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.

 

First, my reflection (this was a 5-minute write, so not refined at all).

***

Picture this: it’s high noon, the heat of the day, and I’m at the well. Worst time to be there, of course, but my day went kaphlooey, and it had to be done. At least at that time I figured I could find some blessed silence at last, because who draws water under the scorching sun?

Wouldn’t you know it? A guy was there – not only a guy, but a Jewish guy. And not only a Jewish guy, but a talkative Jewish guy. So much for peace!

Honestly, things being like they are between Samaritans and Jews, and men and women, I’d have avoided going there if we didn’t need the water so badly, but as it is I had no choice. And then he asked me for a sip. Kind of against the rules, that, but when have I ever followed the rules? The poor guy did look beat.

But once he’d had a sip, it got weird. He offered me water. “Living water,” he said, whatever that means. He offered me water even though he had no bucket, and told me that if I drink of his special water, I’ll never thirst again.

I can’t say why I even took him seriously. I mean, that’s nuts, right? But to never thirst again … ? What would you have done?