Monday, August 5, 2019

5 August 2019

What is enough? When will it be enough?

I hang heavy towels to dry, comforted by the soughing of the wind in the Box Elders. A tiny pair of shorts, a tiny pair of underpants, a trio of ancient threadbare cloth diapers used now for damp mopping floors: these will dry in the space of an afternoon. I will bring them in at dusk, fold them, put them away. I will order things. I will make order.

I drove my children to the grocery store today. They sat beside each other in the cart. They ate free grocery store cookies and looked at the lobsters and the crabs in their tanks. I palmed apples and sniffed peaches and wondered:

is it safe to go to the grocery store?

Is this a question anyone, anywhere should ever have to ask?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Idiosyncratic Parameters for Digital Media

I've been thinking a lot about the Internet recently, particularly social media and smart phone use, and I know I'm not alone. Recent news about teen social media use and mental health has led to numerous responses, including this rather lovely meditation on "tethering" oneself to the material world.

Like so many others, I feel the appeal of social media, its promise for connecting over distance with old friends, faraway family, communities that share my interests and passions and questions, folks I find inspiring. I also feel, deeply and fully, the goodness of celebrating beauty and the serendipity of certain online discoveries.

But also like for so many others, social media's appeal, and my succumbing to it, feels not-quite-right: it's like a sweet liqueur that tastes nice in very small doses but sometimes leaves me feeling slightly clammy and off-kilter.

The question of why the Internet--and especially social media--is so appealing is hardly mysterious: many researchers have shown how the very structure of the software is designed to addict, in the name of capitalist profit brought about by increased "engagement" and advertising revenue. The question is whether it is possible to engage while also resisting the built-in mechanisms that lure us into more engagement than is really good for us.

I have friends who have sworn off social media altogether, or who never really got into it. These friends are not anti-technology; they just never saw the appeal of Facebook, or they recognized that they were in too deep and decided to close accounts. I do not hear these friends bemoaning what they have lost.

Other friends do digital detoxes: a day a week, or an hour an evening, or every day until noon, or a week a month--some sabbath-like portion of time during which they fully disengage from social media or the Internet or their devices, like a regular hard-reset. In my own experience, these resets reorient how I experience time and how I perceive even the times I am not detoxing, especially if I keep up the practice often enough.

For my own children, I am committed to almost no online engagement, following the old guidelines of no screen time before two and no handheld devices before (at least) twelve. M, who is four and a half, watches maybe three hours of children's programming per week on my laptop, and we have two or three family movie nights per month. P, who is 20 months old, isn't interested at all, except in trying to steal my phone from me.

And there's the rub: whatever my boundaries for my children, what I model for them is just as powerful as the rules I hold them to. So what am I modelling? 

Because of the constraints of my professional and personal life, and my own preferences (let's be honest here), I find that in addition to a weekly sabbath, disciplined parameters are the most helpful way for me to find a healthy engagement with social media and the Internet and digital devices more generally--one that feels consistent with my hopes for my little ones, as well. But of course, I slide into less healthy habits, and so this Lent I am putting some concrete parameters back into practice.

I share them here not as a generalized model of what everyone should do. These are highly idiosyncratic and have much to do with my own quirks and strengths and weaknesses, my interests and obligations. I offer them, though, as a conversation-starter. I'm curious about others' practices as well, and I always find it much more helpful to read concrete detail than general ideas.

So here they are: My Idiosyncratic Parameters for Digital Media

1. Refuse all push notifications on my phone except for messaging (MMS, iMessage, and Messenger) and email (personal gmail is silent; work Outlook has a tone, to keep me up-to-date on days when I'm working from home while chasing my kiddos. This lets me ignore non-urgent emails until later while addressing time-sensitive notes right away, without any pressure to repeatedly check my email, avoiding the Pavlovian response).

2. Check in on Facebook only on my computer, never my phone, and also only once a day at most. I mostly use Facebook to keep up with old friends and a few groups that are currently relevant in my local or broader community. Keeping it off my phone keeps me from mindless scrolling in the small gaps of life. 

3. Curate my Instagram account very purposefully and check only once in the evening, at most (generally when I'm nursing or rocking P to sleep, after his eyes are closed). I use Instagram to follow personal friends or people whose lives inspire me: creative makers like artists, farmers, quilters, poets; women in my stage of life or a stage or two ahead who exemplify some of my parenting / householding ideals; and also folks whose difference from me challenges me in life-giving ways rather than just mirroring me back to myself. In other words, Instagram, for me, is mostly like a series of lifestyle magazines. 

And instead of scrolling through my feed, if I've gone a few days, I visit people's profiles and read their posts in chronological order, like an old-school blog. This doesn't trick the algorithm so much as bypass it, and it certainly doesn't increase others' engagements with my posts. In other words, I'm not gaming the system so much as just refusing it, and the only reward I get is a more measured, sane experience. This is not possible if I'm trying to keep up with hundreds and hundreds of accounts--but should I be trying that? I also try to slow down and comment instead of skim-gobbling up images with partial attention: the slowness and the commenting feels more human to me, as well. 

4. My Twitter account is pretty much just professional interest follows, and I check Twitter maybe five times a month when I'm stuck eating lunch at my desk during office hours. I know Twitter is a lot more compelling for some people, but it's just not a thing for me. Having a particular scenario when I check it makes me feel like I have an organized date to dip in once in a while and find an article to read I might not have otherwise seen. 

5. I try to treat blogs like magazines (and I also subscribe to print magazines!): catching up when I'm sick or have a quiet non-working meal to myself (this is rare) or when I'm putting P down to sleep. I have let go of "keeping up" with everything I used to read online, as my life is down to very limited leisure time in this phase. It is what it is. 

6. I try not to do things on a screen that I can do with material objects, especially around my children. This means printing articles I want to read at home, checking out print books from the library, grading my students' essays in paper form. Honestly, this helps with my eye fatigue, but it also helps my children see what I'm doing more concretely: if I'm reading on my phone, they don't actually know I'm reading--I could be watching a video or shopping or texting a friend. But if I'm reading a book, they know precisely what I'm doing. I also narrate my phone use when I'm around them: "I'm texting Grandma right now!" or "Let me look up directions to the restaurant"--to concretize my activity and push that increasingly privatized realm of activity back into a more communal space.

To be clear: these are not the ways most of these platforms ask to be used or are structured to be used, and refusing these structures sometimes puts me at a disadvantage. I never have first dibs on nice used kids closed in Facebook buy-and-sell groups, for instance, and I'm sure people see very few of my Instagram posts. I haven't built a Twitter following to advertise my publications, and I miss friends' posts about life events that they assume I've seen. But these sacrifices seem worth it to me, particularly since I also try to keep in touch with close friends via email, paper letters, phone calls, and even--yes--in person.

I'm curious: what are your practices? What quirks and structures do you have in place? What would feel like a more healthy relationship to digital technology?

Friday, February 10, 2017

we need to keep learning from Adrienne Rich

They asked me, is this time worse than another.

I said, for whom?

Wanted to show them something.   While I wrote on the
chalkboard they drifted out. I turned back to an empty room.

Maybe I couldn't write fast enough. Maybe it was too soon.

(Adrienne Rich, from "Draft #2006")

Saturday, November 19, 2016

after the biscuits

Passion is that unquenchable thirst for that which is not yet.  
       -- Rev. Dr. Patricia L. Hunter
I wrote last week of devastation, of anger and fear and sorrow. I wrote of the need to work towards forgiveness and understanding, imagining others' perspectives, believing the best of others; I wrote of the powerful subversion possible in acts of kindness and beauty; I wrote of the good in carrying out daily practices of care. I wrote a rallying cry for myself and others who were flabbergasted and overwhelmed.

I baked my biscuits, and I hope you baked yours, and I hope you shared them.

But I was aware even as I wrote those words, and increasingly aware in the days that followed, that they could be read as a call to quietism--a level-headed acceptance of things as they are, a shrug-your-shoulders making-the-best-of-it. I lean in this direction, by dint of personality and also social position: I am a white middle-class American woman, a figure who tends to be both symbolically and pragmatically committed to the status quo, benefitting from the stability of hearth and home, often implicitly seeking to preserve it.

Let me make this very clear: forgiveness, kindness, beauty, truth, even biscuits can be profoundly subversive. The way I raise my children, the way I treat my neighbour, the way I care for myself: these are not just domestic, private acts. The personal is political; the maternal is political (see Sara Ruddick). I wish to reclaim these daily acts as powerful, particularly when they are done with an eye toward freedom and justice.

But I am also the citizen of a representative democracy with a vote and a voice, a bank account and a telephone and a computer, with access to unprecedentedly broad news coverage and a dizzying array of social networks. Which is to say: I am rendered responsible for neighbours far afield. And while I believe that activism should be rooted in the local, I also recognize my responsibility within the national and global scope of current injustices--even or perhaps especially as an American living abroad.

This is a less cozy reality to write and read about than the pleasures of flour and butter. It is less comforting. It is less beautiful, even. It is a rallying cry wrenched from my gut, against my desire to hunker down and protect my own.

So after the biscuits, and in between the sweeping, and often while nursing, here is where I am beginning:

1) Exercising my imagination

As Adrienne Rich writes in her collection What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (which I think everyone should be reading right now), "it's the imagination that must be taken hostage, or terrorized, or sterilized, in order for a totalizing unitary power to take control of people's lives."

"The imagination's roads open before us," she writes in "Poetry and the Forgotten Future," "giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum 'There is no alternative.'" These days require imagination of other possibilities, better futures. They require what Junot Díaz, drawing on Jonathan Lear, has recently called "radical hope." We exercise our capacity to imagine and hope by reading imaginative literature--fantastical stories, metaphorically dense poems, narratives of lives other from our own. We also exercise it by dreaming of possibilities, brainstorming with communities, picturing hopeful scenarios while we walk or wash the dishes.

Here's Rich again: "For now, poetry has the capacity--in its own ways and by its own means--to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still-uncreated site whose moral architecture is found not in ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom."

2) Reading challenging writers, especially people of color 

A subset of my imaginative exercises has been reading poems and stories that ask me to imagine the experiences of others. This week I have been reading bell hooks's memoir Bone Black in order to inhabit a racial reality different from my own experience, and I have been reading Ross Gay's poems, and I have been asking friends for other recommendations. (If you're looking for recommendations yourself, you can never go wrong with my favourites Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, Louise Erdrich, Chimamanda Adichie, or Zadie Smith.)

I've also been trying to read more about those who voted differently from how I did, to imagine myself in their shoes. This has included seeking out the social media feeds of friends with whom I disagree. (Another idea: read the book that's not for you.) As I've written about extensively (see the link to my first book, above), I don't believe reading about others automatically increases our empathy, and I don't believe literary representations of other lives and experiences of injustice necessarily change the world. But I do believe our choice to engage with such books, with careful openness and risky attention, can change us.

Beyond the realm of fiction, I have been returning to my notes on the nonfiction writers who turned my world upside down a decade ago: to the theologians Emilie Townes and Delores Williams and Kwok Pui-lan and James Cone, to the philosophers Drucilla Cornell and Ewa Ziarek. As Chela Sandoval and others have argued, marginalized people groups often offer unique wisdom for how to creatively function within unjust systems--because they have plenty of experience doing so. More than anyone else right now, and for many reasons, I think we should be following their lead.

To that end, I'd recommend this Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves that's been going around. On a younger end of the scale, last month I went through my preschooler's Scholastic book order (!) and ordered only books with brown-skinned characters. Our collection of children's books, despite our best intentions, was overwhelmingly populated by white figures. This is not a picture of the real world's cultural richness, a world I want my children to grow up recognizing as their own.

3) Doing the uncomfortable work of speaking up

I am not a fan of the phone. I will send a hundred emails before I'll voluntarily dial a number. But phone calls appear to be among the most effective way to get politicians' attention. So: time to call. And time to make some postcards. And time to keep learning from others about how best to act: where to show up, whom to seek out locally, where to send your donations. Some recommendations:

- If you're open to a faith-oriented approach, my friend Ric curates ProActive: The Prophetic Activism Initiative on Facebook

- Likewise, Christian Peacemaker Teams offers helpful resources and suggestions

- Particularly on climate change and radical hope, Rebecca Solnit is a font of wisdom

- Seek out, then join or start a local or digital group for conversation, encouragement, brainstorming, and sharing resources. And biscuits.

I'm hoping you will share more ideas in the comments.

***But Cindy, you lost me at number one. I'm not on the same page with you politically.

Okay. This is okay. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. The news makes it increasingly clear to me that we--all of us--are in for a bumpy ride. If I'm wrong, I will happily eat my share of humble pie. I have never wished more strongly to be wrong.

But if I'm not wrong, then others are going to have to be eating that pie. It is not the most delicious pie. It is hard to admit to being duped or misguided. It goes against our impulses to avoid public shame and blame (see Brené Brown). But I believe the nation and the world and all of creation need us to be clear-sighted about what is going on in the days ahead.

Which brings me back to baking. I bet the challenge of eating that humble pie--of joining together for the sake of justice and truth and goodness in the days ahead, despite past divisions--would be sweetened if we were all sharing actual pie. Thanksgiving will be a good place to start (and goodness knows our family dinners will be needing sugar of both literal and metaphorical sorts), but we will need this kind of hospitality in the weeks and months ahead, with a rugged sort of commitment to generosity and to challenging each other and also to giving each other grace around the table. And wouldn't it be nice if we were widening those tables?

Sharing such pie means living with courageous humility and humble courage: bravely owning up to our mistakes and wrongs and seeking to learn from others, but also stepping out with a steely commitment to justice, to calling out corruption, and to standing with the most vulnerable, even though we will doubtless misstep at points. To act in this way means extending grace to others and accepting it for ourselves, but also an unstinting, risky, even passionate pursuit of the common good. It means living with hope, grabbing hold of beauty, rolling out the crust and filling it and baking it and maybe sometimes giving it all away and going hungry, or wailing because you've dropped it on the floor, or extending your metaphors to the edge of breaking just to make the point that there is beauty and there is horror and there is mourning and there is joy.

And there is hope, because there must be, because we will be needing it.

This is just a beginning from my own limited view of things. I'd love other reading, resource, and action suggestions in the comments. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

forgiveness, starlight, biscuits: a post-election meditation

I am heartbroken this morning.

I gasped for air in the night, nursing a baby whose heartiness and frailty balance as a paradox in my arms, checking the news when he woke me every two hours or so. I am genuinely surprised, and horrified, and scared.

And I am angry. I am angry at friends and loved ones whose votes helped bring this reality to pass: a president with whom I would not trust my three-year-old daughter, from whose hateful words I have shielded her small ears. A president whom I cannot trust not to mock my visually impaired son, much less support policy in his favour (and this wound is still so fresh in my soul). A president who has campaigned by appealing to hatred and fear, prejudice and xenophobia.

Who are we? What have we wrought?

I am heartbroken, and I am angry, and I am bewildered.

And so today I am focusing on these three things.

1. forgiveness

I do not mean this to sound condescending. If my chosen candidate had been elected, I believe that folks on the other side would also have deep concerns and frustration at those of us who voted for her and would have similar forgiving work to do. This has been the tenor of the election: deeply divisive, leading us further and further away from any capacity to imagine each other's perspective.

Many who voted for the president-elect did so out of hatred or fear of others (immigrants, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ folk), responding to his rhetoric of exclusion that preyed on their disappointments. They have made this clear themselves.

But I do not believe that all my friends and loved ones who voted for him or for a third party did so from these motivations. I want to believe that they were trying to do their best. I want to believe that they were trying to be faithful to the world as they understand it. This is not the world as I understand it. This is not pro-life as I understand it, for example. This is not Christianity as I understand it. But even if I think they were deeply wrong, I want to believe that they were trying to do their best.

This will take time.

2. starlight

As the ancient poet said, the task of people of faith living in a crooked and warped generation is to shine like stars: to take the narrow high road, to refuse arguments and bitterness, to think highly of others and to treat them as we would want to be treated.

My hope was never in a government in the first place. My hope is in daily acts of self-giving love: inviting neighbours over for dinner, asking good questions, living with subversive kindness and peacefulness and gentleness.

And beauty: may we throw ourselves into beauty. May we create it, with paint and with our bodies and with words and with the seeds we sow in next spring's soil. May we celebrate it and champion its makers.

May we read our children fantastic books that spark their imaginations, and may we turn off our televisions in favour of poetry, and may we play the best music we know, and may we choose to love and practice hospitality and pursue justice for the earth. May we stand with Standing Rock and dance with brides and love our enemies and find one thing to do each day that glows against the backdrop of confusion and despair.

May we not despair.

3. biscuits

I have a jug of cream in my fridge that's at the edge of its life, and so today I will bake a double batch of cream biscuits. I will fold five loads of laundry and tidy my living room, and I will change diapers and sweep floors. I will cut into cloth and stitch it, and brainstorm over whom I can share the biscuits with, who might be needing them most.

In other words: I will get on with life. I will scrub the sink. I will be gentle with my tender self and my tender children and my tender spouse, and I will carry on in daily living with the trust that this is what one must do, that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, that the kind of life I want to lead is one with shared biscuits and clean sinks and quietness.

There will be time for direct action and bold words and outright resistance, but today is not that day. Today is a day for biscuits.

"[P]eace, like a poem, / is not there ahead of itself," writes Denise Levertov. It is made in "each act of living."

Let us live.

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.