Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent Sermon: Freedom Bound--The Path of Mercy

         Every Advent, I feel two competing impulses, two competing tones. These competing tones are represented in my imagination by two songs.
         The first of these is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The song speaks to me, in its words and its minor key, of longing, even of lament. Although the last phrase is “Rejoice,” with the assurance that Emmanuel—or God-with-us—shall come, I still feel in the song a gathering-together of all the world’s deep sorrow and injustice and need for cleansing and redeeming and mercy. Advent gives us an opportunity to live into this reality of our desperate need for God’s tender compassion, and I don’t think you need me to give you a list of recent headlines to prove that we have a lot to lament and long for—a lot to be freed from.
         The other song is from the musical Godspell. (Do you know Godspell?) It’s the John the Baptist song at the beginning of the show: his voice rings out, a cappella, slowly, singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (I would sing it for you, but my range isn’t that good. Can anybody do it for us?) The song begins with this repeated phrase, but after a while instruments come in, and the pace picks up: it’s an up-tempo, joyful song, just that repeated phrase, over and over. In the 1973 film version, John the Baptist’s voice echoes out in the wilderness of the city, and folks from all walks of life hear it and leave behind what they’re doing and find him at a fountain. And they jump in—it’s a baptism scene, and he is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in preparation for the Messiah to come—but these people are splashing and laughing and playful, like children all over again.
        Mournful longing—and joyful activity. Two songs, and two sides to Advent, this season during which we pay special attention to how we are “freedom bound.” These two songs also speak to our lectionary texts on this second Sunday of Advent. These texts—from Malachi, Luke, and Philippians—invite us into three overlapping stories: first, the story of God’s covenant with the people of Israel; second, the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah; and third, the story of the universe, a story in which all of us find ourselves. All three of these stories showcase painful, extended longing. But they also showcase joyful hope that the Lord is coming.
         The first story, the story of God’s partnership with Israel, is highlighted for us in the Old Testament reading from Malachi, a prophetic promise that God will send a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. It’s a promise to continue the covenant Yahweh made long generations past with the Israelites, a promise of blessing. If we imagine the situation of the people receiving this prophecy, the promise is even more vivid: the Israelites had finally returned from exile and been restored to the land God had promised their ancestors Sarah and Abraham. They ought to have been full of joy and faithfulness. Yet in the book of Malachi, God speaks out against corruption among the priesthood, religious and moral laxity, injustice against workers, widows, orphans, and refugees, an overall lack of faith in God’s promise to reward righteousness. And still, despite the people’s failure to hold up their end of the bargain, God reminds them “I do not change.” God promises fulfillment, promises to send a messenger and to come to them. Now this promise of future arrival isn’t entirely comforting: indeed, the Lord will bring judgment, like the harsh soap that washes soil from newly-shorn wool, or the fire that melts away impurities from gold or silver. Who can stand when this Lord appears, we are asked in verse 2.
         This is a question we must ask ourselves as well. It’s easy enough to read the sins described in Malachi and pat ourselves on the back: most of us aren’t sorcerers, and we’re certainly not priests offering second-rate animal sacrifices in the temple. But how do we treat those around us? What do our habits of thought and speech and action say about the desires of our hearts? How do we implicitly, without even thinking about it, contribute to the oppression of the vulnerable—in subtle racism, in blatant disregard for who made our clothes or picked our grapes? How often do we give in to the sin of apathy in a world supersaturated with injustice? What chains bind our hearts?
         These are difficult questions. The introspection this season asks of us—the introspection this text asks of us—is hard and painful work. We find ourselves bound by chains of sin within our hearts, or stuck perpetuating injustices we don’t know how to fix, or sometimes, oppressed by others’ sin and injustice. We are left to cry out, in a minor key: “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free / Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”
         But there is good news wound through even the judgment warning of Malachi: “Return to me,” God says later in chapter 3, “and I will return to you” (vv. 6, 7). That is an image of mercy if I’ve ever seen one: mercy as compassion, mercy as forgiveness. This is the story of God’s faithfulness to God’s chosen partner-people, a story of patient, steadfast love in the face of rejection. It is a story of promised freedom from oppression, and freedom from the bonds that cause us to oppress others. The Lord’s promised coming brings with it not destruction but purification: the wool is not destroyed in the washing, nor is the gold destroyed in the refining. Instead, they are made ready to serve their purposes to bring warmth, to bring beauty to this world. The wool and the precious metal need to be set free from the impurities that hold them back from serving these purposes. God’s promised future arrival, preceded by this prophesied messenger, is not a promise of arbitrary punishment, but a promise to bring freedom.

         In the 400-some years that passed between the prophecy of Malachi and the fulfillment we read of in the book of Luke, things did not get easier for the Israelites. The need for freedom, for deliverance, only grew. These were centuries of war and difficulty, centuries when the people saw their promised land occupied by imperial Rome. Not to mention the waiting: their God had promised to send a messenger, a new prophet Elijah, had promised to come to them and save them—and where was this messenger? Where was this Messiah?
         And here we come to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Our passage from Luke 1 is Zechariah’s song after their son John is born—that John is John the Baptizer, about whose ministry we read in Luke 3, that messenger the New Testament writers insistently interpret as the one promised in Malachi. Elizabeth and Zechariah were an ordinary couple living in ordinary—which is to say difficult—times. People in an occupied territory, trying to make a life, heartbroken over their infertility, righteous yet disgraced because they lived in a day when childlessness was viewed as a sign of punishment. And God steps into their story, answers a prayer they had probably already ceased to pray, and grants them a child. When this child is born as promised, everyone who hears of it rejoices because, as the Gospel writer describes it, “the Lord has shown his great mercy to [Elizabeth].”
         This gets me every time: the way God’s merciful fulfillment of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s deep personal longings intersects with the fulfillment of a promise made centuries before to an entire people. John the Baptizer, the Lord’s messenger who would declare his arrival, could have been born to anyone. But he was born to a couple who had waited and waited, and who had been judged by society, and who were at the point of giving up hope. In one sense, Elizabeth and Zechariah are a vivid pictures of the Israelites: they had waited and waited, they had been judged (and oppressed) by their Roman occupiers, they were at the point of giving up hope. In another sense, it’s crucial that we remember that these two were individual, particular people, because this teaches us something true about our own lives. Our stories, with their pains and their joys, intersect in mysterious and powerful and unpredictable ways with the stories of the people around us, the stories of the universe. We should never discount that.
         But back to Zechariah’s song in Luke 1: the man has been mute during Elizabeth’s pregnancy because he doubted Gabriel’s announcement that the couple would conceive (can we really blame him?). But at John’s naming ceremony he is given back his voice, filled with the Holy Spirit, and compelled to speak a prophetic song. And what a song! In it, Zechariah echoes the Psalms and the prophets, drawing a connection between his miraculously-born son John, the Messiah John would herald, and the promises God had made to the people of Israel. Zechariah’s song repeats, again and again, that God is to be praised because of the way the covenant—finally, at long last, after such years and years of waiting—is being fulfilled. It’s a song about how God’s favor, redemption, salvation, and rescue have arrived, and are arriving, and will arrive. It’s a song about a God who frees from both outward oppressions and inward sins. It’s a song about a God whose character shines forth in this keeping-of-promises. And that is a character, a heart, of tender mercy, of tender compassion.
         Zechariah’s song—his story, with his wife Elizabeth—speaks to the arc of the Israelites’ story, and God’s ancient covenant with them, but it’s also a song for all of us. This oath God swore to Abraham was a promise of blessing, yes, a promise (as my Old Testament professor Dr. Miller always used to say) of land, nation, and leader, but it didn’t end with the people of Israel. We see that in both of this morning’s passages from Luke, and it brings me to the third story I mentioned, the story of the whole created world. This is the place where our story—yours and mine—intersects with Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s and the Israelites’. Because God’s promise to Abraham, which we read about in Genesis 12, was never just to bless his family or his people: “You will be a blessing,” Yahweh says to Abram. “All peoples on earth will be blessed by you.”
         The story of God’s covenant with Israel is a story of blessing and preparing a people to bring light into the world. This seems to be the way God prefers to work. John’s ministry began, in fulfillment of Malachi, with his preaching a baptism of repentance—and forgiveness (those who ask receive, those who seek find): and with the promise that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” we hear him singing, and the call is for all of us, and it’s a call of joy. When we turn from our sin, God is waiting with a heart of mercy, waiting to free us and fill us with purpose. As Zechariah says in his song, God’s rescue comes so that we might serve him. It is for freedom that we are set free, set free to share the freedom. We receive mercy so that we may in turn be merciful. This is God’s intention, recorded from the very beginning, an intention that blessing in one story should overlap into the next story and the next, in a glorious ripple effect of redemption.

         This news is good. Advent can be a time of dancing and tambourines and splashing in a baptismal fountain, because even the painful work of repentance is wrapped up in God’s mercy and the promise of freedom. And still: we are waiting. This is the already-not-yet of Advent. John has come into the world, heralding the Messiah. The Messiah has come into the world, heralding the Kingdom of God. But our world has not yet seen full fulfillment. We are still waiting for the light to break through, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like their people. We read the news, we look into our hearts, we watch our dear ones suffer with illness, we face into our own finitude, and I’ll say for myself, I feel at times that I am sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. As I told you at the outset, I swing back and forth between my two Advent songs. Sometimes—and especially recently—what feels truer is a mournful tune.
         And I look around me and within me, and I ask myself, what does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord, in these difficult days? When will my nation’s leaders do something to curb the outrageous gun violence unique to the land of my birth? When will our wealthy nations curb the environmental degradation our lifestyles cause? When will refugees all have homes, when will Indigenous people cease to be murdered and go missing at disproportionate rates, when will prisons cease to be overfull, when will people cease to be judged by the color of their skin, when will hunger cease to be a problem in a world full of food? When will I have ever done enough to help, on all these fronts? When will my own heart cease toward self-protection, self-distraction, self-justification? There are times when the already-not-yet Kingdom seems awfully far away, and all I can sing is “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” If I can sing at all.

         And so, what I have to offer in closing is a story—one of my stories—that I hold out as a metaphor, a reminder of why we must stubbornly cling to the major as well as the minor key.  

         This week, four years ago, I was in labor. I paced our Montana apartment, gripped by the strongest pain I had ever felt in my life, pain so fierce that all I could do was bend and moan and beg Jesus for mercy.
         Those of you who know me know that I don’t have a four-year-old child. That day four years ago, I was laboring to bring forth a babe I already knew would never laugh or cry or breathe the air. I’d had what doctors call a missed miscarriage—Josh and I went in to the midwife for our 12-week checkup full of joy, expecting to hear a heartbeat, and instead we learned via ultrasound that the little one had ceased to grow at least a week before, although my body had given no sign of trouble. As the weeks passed, it became clear that I would have to labor in order to lay this little one to rest.
         I tell this story for two reasons. First, it is my story, but many of you probably have stories like it. These stories speak of our sorrow. They speak of how we live in a world oriented toward unexpected and unwelcome death. These losses, and the longings of our hearts, are part of the world of brokenness and injustice that we lament.
         But as I said, my main reason for telling this story is to offer us an image, a metaphor. There are times when we groan under the weight of this world, when we struggle and labor and in our pain and exhaustion, we lose sight of the promised light. When we look around us and within us, sometimes, we give in to the belief that our labor is in vain, that our labor is a hopeless, agonizing task that will bring no life into the world. How could we believe our repentance has any value? How could we ever think our work was meant to prepare a way for the Lord?
         I have also given birth to a living child—an eight pound, nine-and-a-half-ounce living child, who was head down but face-up, meaning 17 hours of back labor, meaning 17 hours of solid pain, without relief between contractions. The pain of that labor was an otherworldly thing: the exhaustion and desperation were unlike anything I have ever experienced. But at the end of it, I held a dark-haired, wide-eyed little being, screaming with life, warm and throbbing with life and potential and mystery, and there are no words for the joy of it.
         Friends, our stories are full of pain and difficulty. Our miscarriages are not always followed by live births. Our illnesses are not always healed. Our efforts do not always succeed. Our world is full of pain and difficulty. Darkness and death seem at times to be winning. But the Big Story—the cosmic story—the story toward which all of creation arcs—it ends in life. This is the core of our faith, and we see hints of it when we have eyes to see: in the casserole delivered after a surgery, in the phone call that comes at just the right time, in the testimonies of unexpected healing, in the smiles of strangers, in the magenta sunrise that asserts itself over the prairie at the end of a long winter night.
Freedom is coming. We labor for life. We work for justice and mercy around us—we do the painful work of repentance within us—in full assurance that the God who began a good work in us is able to complete it. That the God who promised to bless the world through Sarah and Abraham is a keeper of promises—that this God, on a timeframe we will never comprehend, in upside-down ways we will never be able to predict, revealed to us in a Jesus who is both tender compassion personified and also a purifying fire—this God will midwife life out of our labors. We live with all of creation in labor pains with the full assurance that By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high has broken upon us and will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peaceand all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This is our hope. Let us cling to it, stubbornly, in these days of Advent and all the days to come. Let us sing all our songs—of longing and of joy.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Adrienne Rich -- "The School Among the Ruins"

As we grapple with how to respond to the horrific violence in Beirut, Paris, and too many other places, I'm convinced that we must consider the human cost of militarism in all its forms. Adrienne Rich's 2001 poem "The School Among the Ruins" is a powerful reminder of the reasons so many refugees are fleeing--and the consequences of how we do war these days.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

November, in contrasts

The way the bare branches of the Box Elders reach up, up to the white November sky, pebbled at their ends, reminders of the promise of buds some half a year away from coming: the texture of that sky, opaque as milk but softened with subtle grey: the complicated crosshatch of the branches, hosting tiny pairs of birds and then empty again.

Does the Internet need another little voice, another handful of paragraphs, added to its cacophony? Probably not.

But sometimes one just has something to say: the branches, today, are a tangled beauty, and I need to stop and notice.

Friday, August 21, 2015

on applesauce, and Instagram, and the creation of the world

I write from the land of nap time, rumpled couch in the still living room in the rainy small town on a Friday afternoon. Once upon a time I used to record all five senses each Friday. Once upon a time I was not juggling work that requires computer time with efforts to raise a low-tech child.

Today I am processing 17 pounds of apples. I have another 17 to go on Sunday afternoon or Tuesday next week. Today I have made applesauce, and as I type a pot slowly bubbles and murmurs on the stove, thickening and browning into apple butter. Every so often I must get up to stir the pot with my decade-old wooden spoon, scraping the bottom, letting it know I have not forgotten it. I will measure out cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, perhaps a dash of ginger in a little while. I will funnel this spicy brown goodness into small jars, and lower them into their bath of boiling water, and set the timer. I will hope for a good seal, although a bad seal means we're obligated to consume the failed jar right away, which isn't such a terrible form of obligation. 

I have been sharing photos of this process on social media today, multiple photos in a row, participating in a practice colloquially known as "overgramming." And I have been drawn to contemplate what drives this photographing, this sharing, and thinking about criticisms of a generation that shares pictures of each restaurant meal, each outfit, commentary on each minor revelation or frustration. Here's the thing, and I'm sure I'm not the first to say this: there is of course an unhealthy penchant for oversharing, for building a public self up out of just the pretty images of life, or inflating drama to establish one's social importance. But there is also, I think, a very holy and human impulse to document small moments of beauty, to carve out a space in the monotony or the frantic pace of life or the very real and present sorrows in this world in order to recognize a bit of goodness. There is an impulse to connect around these moments, to inspire and to be inspired by common practices and attention to similar sparks of light. 

Now: heaven forbid that these bits of beauty be all that we allow ourselves to see. But isn't it important for us to stop and recognize them in our own lives, and to affirm them in other people's? 

I have also been thinking about Wendell Berry's many thoughts on maintaining a household, and Kathleen Norris's beautiful writing on the dignity and poetry of repetitive housekeeping. I have been thinking about seasons, cycles of birth and life and death and renewal. I have been feeling a little off-kilter, canning apples in summer, when I hail from a place in the world where apples are picked in proper autumn, not August. And so I have been thinking about home, and what home is. 

Home is also vivid in my mind because I have been musing all week on Psalm 84, one of this week's texts in the Revised Common Lectionary. How have I not been struck by Psalm 84 before? I have heard its first few lines in songs and liturgies time and again, but verses three and four? 

Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you.[c]

How beautiful to imagine the Creator of the universe as One Who welcomes all into one holy house, not just people but all the created world, including the little sparrows and swallows. How wonderful to picture God as One Who cares for the vulnerable, the fluttering heart of a feathered mother. How glorious to think of joining our songs together in praise for such a One, and calling that place and that music home

And the question follows: what does it mean to live into this little life, this sprawling brown brick house of mine, this canning pot and sack of small apples, so that it manifests, just a tiny bit, that holy space of welcome? 

A coda: I stood at the sink washing a second round of jars today as M finished her leisurely lunch, mostly hummus spooned directly into her mouth with little use for the carrots and cucumbers, and also chia-seed chocolate pudding. She had been fussing at having to come in out of the rain, but she soon settled. I was lost in thought (see above). Out of her chatter rose a recitation: "In very beginning, God's love bubbled over when there was nothing else--no trees, no birds, no animals, no sky, no sea--only darkness. Out of that love, God spoke: Let there be light. 

"And there was day. And there was night. 

"And when the first day was done, God smiled, and knew that it was good."

She went on, skipping around the text of the Desmond Tutu/Nancy Tillman creation story collaboration Let There Be Light. She jumbled the order of things, naming and chuckling at the various created things ("Elephants and giraffes!" "Bees and bugs!"). But again and again, she repeated that it was good

I stood with my back to her, my hands in hot, soapy water, and cried at the goodness of it, this life, this world. 

My point here is not to impress you will my precocious toddler's book memorization, nor is it to make a point about biblical literalism (how can anyone insist on six literal, twenty-four-hour days when the mechanisms by which we understand such time to be measured were not even set in motion at the outset of the biblical story? how can we presume to imagine the Most High constrained by our human understanding of time?).

What I learn from this moment is the beauty of a 22-month-old praising the Creator in poetry, delighted in this earth-home on which she finds herself, calling out its goodness, recognizing that we are made and that this world is in some very real sense good, even in its tedium and tragedy and injustice, and that in some wonderfully real sense we are home

When I turned around again, M was covered in hummus and chocolate chia pudding. It took three rinse-and-wring-outs of the washcloth to clean her up to passable, and I'm not sure I'll ever get the stain out of her sweater. But if you give me a moment, I suspect I'll might catch a glimpse of the holy, even in that. 

Amen and amen. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

from Levertov's "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus"

...I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief. Be,
belove'd, threatened world.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Charleston, Sorrow, Silence, Speech

Here is where I am coming from. I am an American in Canada. I am the daughter of working-class Baptists, descended from German, Polish, and an unspecified southern mix of immigrants, as well as probably Cherokee--though most Americans seem to claim as much. (It's part of the folk culture, I think, a way to feel less bad about Manifest Destiny since it blurs the line between "us" and "them.") I grew up outside Detroit. I am a white woman with a PhD in English, focusing especially on women writers, postcolonial literature, race and gender, and religion. I am preparing to teach about the Middle Passage, Native American jurisdiction, and NAFTA in a Saskatchewan classroom this fall, via texts like Beloved (Morrison), The Round House (Erdrich), and The Guardians (Castillo). I am raising a little girl. I am learning to care for another gardener's perennials in a house newly purchased.

I have no right to speak, no platform to speak. I am uneasy at the thought of self-aggrandizement--using tragedy as an excuse to write and receive affirmation, the rush of accumulating social media likes and shares.

The horrors pile up. I watch them. I comb my daughter's hair, blinking back tears. Brutality, rampant prejudice, death, shrill arguments that leave no space for actual listening. Not to mention the under-reported and unreported tragedies, the deaths-by-drone, the Elsewhere sorrows.

I observe, mostly silent, doubly removed as an expatriate, while Canadians lose crucial freedoms, its leaders seeming to shrug off serious suggestions to ameliorate the effects of its own wicked history--while my own country, day after day, exports news of its bloodbaths. I am not the one to speak, the suburban white woman, young and untried.

Mostly, then, I listen. I follow friends who compile Black sources, Indigenous sources; I read up. I donate funds to organizations that seek to undo injustices. I attend events when I can. I am helping to plan a conference that will do a tiny local part in these larger conversations about structures of power and justice and hope. I bake bread. I weed the flowerbeds. I read some more.

Lately, though, I feel that my silence might be a rejection of responsibility. I feel, deeply, intuitively, uncomfortably, that I may need to share a few words with my corner of the internet.

Here is what I know: I know texts. I sit, figuratively, at the feet of womanists, postcolonial feminist theologians, novelists. I read and re-read their stories and theories and laments, seeking not to idealize or idolize or romanticize them but to learn from painfully-earned wisdom. I have painfully-earned wisdom of my own, as well, but it is different. I am seeking to gather together the various wisdoms, to learn from more than myself.

A crucial insight: If there is one inescapable point in Toni Morrison's Beloved, a complex and nuanced novel, it is that the history of slave trade in the Americas will come back to haunt. Everybody should be reading Beloved. Everybody should be reading The Guardians. Everybody should be reading The Round House. Not just my students in Transnational Literature--all of us. We need these stories to confront us and challenge us.

A following crucial insight: I am culpable. As a white person who benefits from a system that holds my skin colour as neutral, as regular, as default (see the "flesh"-colored crayon I grew up with; hold it next to my skin), I am implicated in a racist system. Never mind that I was born in the 1980s; never mind that I grew up in racially diverse schools; never mind that I read and study African-American literature. I benefit from a structure that hurts others, symbolically and materially, emotionally and spiritually. (Parallel: never mind that I've only been in Canada for three years. As a white woman, a university professor, I am implicated in the whole history and system that stole land, livelihood, culture, and self-respect from Aboriginal peoples and now blames them for the troubles that follow.)

I'm not saying I'm personally guilty, or that we should wallow in regret and self-hatred. I'm saying that I benefit while others struggle. And I am left to wonder: what does self-divestment look like? What role does lament play? How do I raise a child in this world, this broken and brilliant world, raise her to know the history and lament it and also feel the nourishment of hope and community? What are my responsibilities?

This is what I sense: I should keep reading. I should keep listening. I should stand before my classes and admit the gaps in my knowledge even as I seek to teach them texts about Others--without idealizing Otherness to the point that we no longer see the particular Others and their particular joys and pains (always a temptation: see Aunt Jemima/Mammy; see Strong Silent Tragic Native). I should raise my voice with others. And sometimes I should step back and let others do the talking.

What are your ideas, friends? How do you confront the privilege and deprivation within you and around you?

Reading suggestions:
Seven Ways to be a White Ally
The Crunk Feminist Collective

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Quickly, quickly

It's the time of year when the light arrests me, shocks me at its early arrival and late departure, like a much-longed-for-houseguest who brings gifts and listens well, no matter how harried I have become in her absence, until I find my sentences slowing and my breathing slowing and my rhythm slowing, altogether a different cadence.

Hello, spring: or, this far north and inland, hello, almost-spring. You are a terrible flirt, and I love you.