Monday, October 29, 2012

God is here among us

I am one of the teachers for the 3-4 year old Sunday school class at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Sometimes this surprises people who know my theology background, and that I am also a deacon, and a preacher. Honestly though, it is ministry with children that most often reveals the limitations of my theological knowledge. The contrast between my different duties also makes plain certain assumptions people tend to make about ministry -- assumptions my church does a decent job of challenging, I think, as I've written about before.

Last year the teachers at CHMF agreed to make an effort to use gender inclusive language in class. I already use inclusive language myself, so eliminating male pronouns for God in my interactions with the children was like second nature to me. Still, when teaching I frequently come across other, less easily solved problems  of gender exclusivity. It’s one thing for me, as teacher, to refer to God only in non-gendered terms, but how do I work with a given curriculum, and somehow help the children to experience God above and beyond gendered constructs? I don’t have an answer to that question, yet, save repeated threats to write my own curriculum.

Last fall we began with a series of stories about Moses. I remember holding up the poster provided with the Sunday school materials, which showed Moses standing in front of the burning bush. Red and orange tongues of flame enveloped the bush without burning it up. My fellow teacher and I pointed to different things in the picture and asked the children to identify them. “Where is God?” I asked. One of the children pointed to the gray haired figure of Moses.

Already they’ve learned that God is a gray haired man -- a sort of cosmic grandfather.  I gently told them that no, that person was actually Moses. Then I said, “Do you know where God is in this picture? God is in the fire!”

Later on, in the spring, we heard the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep. Judy, who keeps sheep, spins, and knits, came and talked to the class about shepherding. She showed the children pictures of the animals, passed around some wool for them to touch, and answered their questions. As we transitioned to story time, and to our mostly male-centric storybook, I thought, well, the shepherd we just talked to is a woman. That day I changed all the pronouns to “she” and the children didn’t miss a beat. Of course the shepherd could be a woman. Or a man. Like Judy, or like her husband Dirk.

Children are often more receptive to this sort of thing than adults.  Our kids love to sing “Father Abraham,” and they totally get it when we say, “But some of you aren’t sons! So we’re changing the word to ‘children.’” That makes sense to them more simply than it does to adults who’ve been taught to believe that male terms apply to women, too.

Teaching children requires creativity and improvisation. I have to pay attention, and look for those little moments to tweak things, to enrich a simple message and help it stick in their minds and hearts.  And isn’t this what children require of us daily, no matter what we’re doing? Creativity, adaptability, a willingness to respond to the unexpected with loving words and actions?

I often interact with male theologians who are set in their ways, and I sometimes get in heated debates about gender language. I am tired of these arguments. I am tired of explaining myself, of trying to convince others that our words matter, that they really do in some sense create or shape the world in which we live. No matter how good my intentions, how sound my theology, I cannot simply will a mind to change. And so, I would rather create a space of love and kindness to teach children about God.

Sunday school is one of the children’s first communal experiences of God. Their tiny bodies, so full of spirit and energy, are just barely beginning to learn to quiet themselves and wonder about the divine. Mostly it’s just hard to keep their attention. Even in those moments when I think it’s impossible to get preschoolers to listen, in their joyful faces I think I can see that they are learning that God is good, and that God is here.

And every once in awhile, a silence sets in, if only for a moment. We sit criss-cross-applesauce in a circle on the floor, and I ask them to all take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. Once more, we take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. I ask them to close their eyes, and I say a prayer, asking God to attend to the small prayer requests they entrusted to me minutes before.  Soon we will burst out of our classroom and into the sanctuary, where they’ll wiggle and giggle next to their parents, but for a moment I believe that God really is here among us, whether the children understand that yet or not.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Kierkegaard, Mennonites, and Writing as a Work of Love

I’ve been back home in Durham for several months now, and I guess you could say I’ve recovered from my six weeks of travel around the midwest by bus and train, as well as the shock of returning to regular work after a blissful month of research and writing.

Six weeks is a long time to be away. The last time I left a place I thought of as “home” for that long was, I think, when I was 18 and going off to work at a camp the summer after I graduated from high school. From there I moved to Holland, Michigan for college, and alternated between there and camp, with short 2-3 week stints at home in Kalamazoo over holidays over the next four years. Then I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.

It took a long, long time for Durham to feel like home. My years as a student at Duke were lonely years. I didn't connect much to the city, I struggled with friendships, and I never quite felt like I fit into the academic community. Even after I had been here long enough to make friends I still felt like this was just the place I lived, not my home, not my community. I didn’t find a church that I could tolerate until I’d been here for a year and a half. A year after that I stumbled into RCWMS. Slowly, my life in Durham started to change.

After five years in a place, to go away for half the summer -- no matter how beautiful and fruitful and challenging my time away was -- was an emotional shock. A few days after I arrived in Northfield, Minnesota at St. Olaf College, I wrote in my journal, quite simply, “This is harder than I thought it would be.” Some of the difficulty was due to things I wrote about earlier in the summer while still in Minnesota; but those challenges were really secondary to the sense of uprootedness from the place that supports, loves, and challenges me in my creative and intellectual work. It was hard to be away from people that I love, and from people who love me, and this is helping me realize how love can free a person to live from their deepest desires and gifts from God.

What do I mean by that? I think I mean that my church community is a place that has, in loving me as I am, helped me grasp more fully God’s love for me, and subsequently learn to love myself more willingly, openly, honestly. In doing that, they have helped me see things about myself -- my personality, skills, gifts, knowledge, whatever -- that are worthwhile, that are my offering to the church and the world. As a writer, this means that my words come from a place of peace and are offered up as a work of love.

This makes me all the more aware, then, of the power or words for good and ill. I am human. I can as easily use language as a weapon as I can use it in love. A careful turn of phrase can be a knife in a person’s heart, can heap burning coals upon someone’s head. I am wary of a gift easily misused. In a world where words swirl around us constantly -- TV, internet, voices on the street, down the hall, across the room -- the need for care and kindness with words is ever present. The tension between violence and peacemaking takes many forms.

I’m wondering to myself, as I often do, if this has anything to do with Kierkegaard. Here is someone who wrote many, many words. Some of my favorites are from the beginning of Works of Love, in a prayer:

“How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth; you who spared nothing but in love gave everything; you who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in you!”

I read Works of Love as itself a work of love. And, aside from other things that I find intellectually interesting or ethically important about Kierkegaard’s work, the most important thing I have ever and I think will ever glean from him is to see writing -- and much of my other work -- in that way.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh: Genesis 2:18-24

Note: This sermon was originally given at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship on October 7, 2012.

In Genesis 2 we find ourselves in the garden, surrounded by lush green growing things, a flowing river that divides and flows out in four directions to other lands God has made. God is here, with Adam, this person God made and breathed God’s own breath into so as to give the creature life. The work of creation is nearly finished – but not quite. This creature God has made – Adam, a human creature, a creature that is like God – is alone. God, being a communal God, says that unlike everything else that has been pronounced good in Genesis 1, this aloneness is not good. God will make Adam a helper. A partner.

God makes animals of every kind – cattle, birds of the air, animals of the field – but none of these are quite what God is looking for. These creatures are not like Adam.

As I dwelt on this text this week, I found myself wondering why many of the preachers and teachers I’ve heard speak about Genesis 2 in the past are so quick to dwell on the word “helper” and to assume “help” implies hierarchy. What first strikes me when I read this passage is partnership – God creates two creatures who are suited to help one another precisely because they are like. They share some creaturely core – the breath of God, the imago dei. The animals, beautiful and strong and useful though they are, are not like Adam – they are not suitable partners for the human.

Doing a little academic sleuthing confirmed my hunch about the word used for “helper,” in Genesis, also – Phyllis Trible notes that it’s a relational term, not one which specifies position or inferiority. She puts this quite succinctly after discussing various uses of the term, when she writes, “God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.” If God helps us, there’s something a bit off about the assumption that the helper is subject to the one helped.

And so, returning to our narrative, God puts Adam to sleep. Adam is passive in the creation of Eve. He’s knocked out cold, and exercises no control over bringing her into existence. He is not a participant, a spectator, or a consultant. Eve is God’s creation. And so, Eve, like Adam, owes her existence to God alone. Both Adam and Eve are created from fragile materials – dust, a rib – and in both cases those materials depend upon God’s careful shaping of those raw materials into human creatures.

In seminary, I half jokingly wore a button on my backpack that said, “You can have your rib back” as a tongue in cheek response to classmates who might question women’s place in a divinity school classroom, but in truth even the rib doesn’t imply inferiority. On the contrary, Trible attributes solidarity and equality to the very rib so often used as justification for patriarchy.

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called woman, for out of man this one was taken.

Trible reflects on this as follows:

“The pun proclaims both the similarity and the differentiation of female and male. Before this [the text has] used only the generic term 'adham...Only with the specific creation of woman ('ishshah) occurs the first specific term for man as male ('ish). In other words, sexuality is simultaneous for woman and man...Man as male does not precede woman as female but happens concurrently with her.”

So here we have a passage that affirms the creation of human creatures as interdependent – helpers and partners, who live in mutuality and discovery.

I think that’s beautiful. And so not the world that we live in most days.

Still, in some ways, as I prepared this week, this passage felt like an odd choice to preach to our congregation. Here is a community in which I see many different ways of being together, male and female, modeled in the people around me. The creativity and mutuality of your lives is encouraging to me. I continue to learn from the ways you compose your lives, your marriages, and your families. We’re not particularly patriarchal around here.

And yet I think this passage – insofar as it speaks of the creation of all humanity – speaks beyond the context of the individual couples it is often applied to. The common misreadings I’ve alluded to aren’t simply a result of reading hierarchy into a text where there is none; the misreading also comes from reading the passage as applicable to one man, and one woman, rather than to all human creatures in our lives together.

I’ve been intrigued by the dialogue happening recently in some pretty mainsteam news outlets about the state of women in the world. There’s a lot of talk about “The War on Women,” and articles about “The End of Men,” and “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” have been posted and reposted all over the internet. As I have read these various pieces – agreeing with parts of some, and parts of others, it’s struck me that we often risk completely missing the real problem.

The problem is that the conversation in our wider society assumes hierarchy. In order for women to “win,” men have to “lose.” Improvement for some ultimately means suffering for others. Our existence as gendered people is inevitably wrapped up in a power struggle.

Unfortunately, our moral imaginations as church folks seem to be formed more by this way of seeing the world than by the God who created us to help one another.

This summer, while I was doing research at the Kierkegaard Library in Minnesota, I got in an argument with a group of young men about male headship. The five guys I found myself sitting around a table with wanted to convince me, the token feminist at Kierkegaard Camp, that male headship was fine in theory because in practice women are usually in control of their families and their husbands. The old saying that “Man is the head, but women is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants to,” comes to mind. This wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation with other Christians, and I am sure it won’t be the last.

Simply put, something is deeply wrong when this is our best vision of a so-called egalitarian world. Do we really think this is God’s best for us? In this picture, rather than mutual helpers, or partnership, we imagine marriage as a power struggle, and spouses as manipulative and scheming. One partner inevitably dominates the other in his or her attempts to control the relationship.

That’s not what we see prescribed in Genesis 2, and it’s not the trajectory I see in the rest of scripture, either, though we can read plenty of examples of how humans fail time and again.

I feel confident stating that Christian marriage is not about domination. I feel equally confident saying that our lives together as Christians – as gendered human beings in the world – are not meant to be about domination, either.

Rather than reading into Genesis a social structure that affirms our own fallen attempts to manipulate hierarchies to our own advantage, we might rather hear in this passage a call to repent of the many ways we grasp at power we were never meant to have.

In our lives together, one-on-one in friendships, and marriages, and in our wider communities, these same dynamics are at work. Do we play the power game? In our jobs, in church life, in our families, do we use our positions and particularities to get our own way? Or do we seek to affirm different relationships – relationships of neighborly love, of partnership, of helping? Relationships mediated by the God who created us all from fragile materials and gave us to one another not to lord over each other but because we need one another? Because truly, it is not good for us to be alone.

Today is World Communion Sunday, and as such we come to a table that has no place for our hierarchies. It does have room for all of the particularities of our flesh and bone, though, for all of the pain of broken relationships. This is as true for us here in Chapel Hill as it is for churches all over the world sharing this meal today – those who we are united with in this common practice, as we proclaim that Christ has reconciled us to God, calling us to be companions and servants as we seek to do God’s work in the world.

Adam says of Eve, this is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh; Jesus says to us, this is my body, that is for you. We come to this table, together, equal before God – equally broken and in need of grace, equally gifted with God’s redeeming love.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Composing A Life

“There has been a tendency to look ahead to some sort of utopia in which women will no longer be torn by the conflicting claims and desires that so often turn their pathways into zigzags or, at best, spirals. And yet these very conflicting claims are affirmations of value. It would be easier to live with greater clarity of ambition, to follow goals that beckon toward a single upward progression. But perhaps what women have to offer in the world today, in which men and women both must learn to deal with new orders of complexity and rapid change, lies in the very rejection of forced choices: work or home, strength or vulnerability, caring or competition, trust or questioning. Truth may not be so simple.” (Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing A Life)

Three years out of seminary, I find that the pieced-together work life I thought was my way of weathering the storm of the recession (graduating in May of 2009 with a degree in Theology was not optimal) has actually turned into a career.

I shouldn’t be surprise that my adult life has taken an unconventional shape -- after all, I was educated at home from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and I’ve always had a bit of a stubborn, independent streak. I make things up as I go along. So far it seems to be working. Still, my tendency at first was to view my cobbled together part-time jobs as a stop on the way to a full-time job with health benefits. A quick glance to the top of this page provides a good example of why that has not proven to be the case. As a blogger, I have chosen to focus on these three descriptors: feminist, mennonite, theologian. In my work life, I’ve taken on many titles in the last three years, but the ones I continue to claim gladly are as follows: writer, non-profit communications guru, writing and philosophy tutor, and occasional editor.

I like my work. But I am frequently torn between these different responsibilities, and Google calendar has become my best friend as I navigate an ever shifting schedule. When Leslie Knope’s work at the Parks Department on the show Parks & Recreation is suffering due to her campaign for city council, Ron Swanson tells her, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” Sometimes I feel like Leslie Knope. Except that I require more sleep than she does, leaving even less time for my various responsibilities.

A more traditional work life is really appealing, sometimes. Yet when I look at what’s out there, none of it fits. Who I am and the work I love doesn’t fit into any one job -- at least not any job I’ve found, yet. I’ve realized I would rather make a little less money (well, maybe a lot less), and have more freedom. Life -- even if we live long -- is very short, in the grander scheme of things. If I live to retirement, I’d rather not only then start to pursue the things I’ve wanted my whole life. I’m going to start doing that now, health insurance be damned.

Framing this theologically, I would say that I find myself called to several different things. I’m multi-vocational. The work that I find most life-giving -- and the work where I am most aware of God using my gifts and abilities -- doesn’t fit into a very neat career right now. Some of it isn’t even the stuff that’s paid. Teaching Sunday School to four year olds, preaching, and doing my homework (since I’m also a full-time student, lord have mercy) are as much a part of my calling and vocation as my communications work and tutoring.

Living this way feels really unstable most of the time. I worry about getting sick, not only because my catastrophic-only insurance won’t cover an office visit, but because I am paid hourly, and missed worked means less money coming in. I worry, too, that all the effort I am pouring into my writing will never amount to anything. I worry, because while I value my work as an artist regardless of success (financial or otherwise), I also value the ability to pay my rent and buy groceries.

I don’t have the answers to any of this. I just know that life, like art, has become a creative process for me. I am, as Bateson puts it, composing a life. In a changing economy, I can’t help but think this sort of creativity will be my greatest asset in the years to come. This way of living? It’s working. I don’t live in my parent’s basement, I’m never late on my rent, and I’m happy doing good work that matters to people.

Meanwhile, a funded writing residency and socialized medicine would be nice additions.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Baking A Book

The last twenty minutes of my Monday morning writing time were spent in the kitchen, mixing up a batch of banana bread, rather than at my desk in my studio. This sort of procrastination or avoidance tactic is not uncommon for me. I like to bake, and everyone needs to eat, so I think of cooking as productive procrastination. As I buttered the loaf pan this morning and then poured the bread batter into it, though, I noticed something else going on.

As some of you know, I am back in school, pursuing an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Queens is a low-residency program, so I’m still living and working in Durham, juggling several jobs along with school, which makes my morning writing hours precious. I have to safeguard this time. Thus, when I find myself baking bread instead of editing my next manuscript submission or staring at a blank page trying to pound out a shitty first draft, I can feel like a bit of a failure. I said “No!” to other things so that I would have this time to write, so why am I not writing?

The simple, true answer is that this work I am doing is slow. I do show up -- most days -- and do some work. It’s difficult, life-giving work. I see bits of progress here and there. Every once in awhile I write a sentence that makes me think, yes, I can do this. Rarely I get a whole paragraph like that, and maybe just maybe an entire essay from time to time. This is fine. This is how it is supposed to work, I think. Good art doesn’t happen overnight. So, I will continue to take the long view.

Still. Sometime a person needs to see some results.

In those moments, into the kitchen I go. Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, mashed bananas, vanilla, baking soda, a pinch of salt. Stir. Bake. Write a few words or read some poems while the apartment is filled with delicious smells. In just over an hour from bowl to belly, I have made something. And I can promise you I am more than capable of eating the whole loaf in under 24 hours.

Maybe my productive procrastination isn’t actually procrastination after all. Maybe it represents the knowledge that there are many kinds of sustenance, that simple, practical tasks give my mind time to moodle, and that after a cup of tea and a slice of something sweet I really will feel encouraged to continue going about the work of creating.