Archive for August 2010
Hoping to get off easy, I replied: Jesus is with God.
B: “No. Where is he?”
No such luck this time.
Me: “Well, some people think that Jesus and God are in heaven, which is a place that is far away where they live. But I think Jesus and God are around us all the time, so they can help us when we need it.”
B: “Oh. So they help us?”
B: Like the guy who mows our lawn?
Me: What do you mean, like the guy who mows our lawn?
B: He helps us. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn helps us.
Me: Sure. That sounds good to me. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn.
What an image of Christ—the lanky, awkward teenager who shows up once a week and tames our wild lawn with the mower. He works quickly and silently, knocking at the door at the end for his meager $20 and barely saying a word. But his presence has put our minds at ease all summer long. We used to worry and fret and procrastinate and agonize over who would mow the lawn and when. Now, even when it starts to look overgrown, we don’t give it a second thought, because we know that our faithful teenage helper will take care of it, whenever he gets around to it. His lanky shoulders have taken a huge burden from us, and know that trusting him with our yard is one of the best things we ‘ve ever done.
Sure, Jesus is like that. Imago Dei, right?
I first heard about this book via a review at RevGalBlogPals, and immediately added it to my list of things to read. While I can say that I enjoyed the experience of reading it, I’m still not sure what I think or feel about the book itself.
The Help tells the story of white women and the black women who work for them as domestic help in Jackson, MS in the early 1960s. It is also a book about writing a book. The story unfolds as one white woman has an idea to write the untold stories of black maids and their relationships with their employers. She recruits one lifelong domestic worker to help her, and together they engage in the dangerous work of collecting stories. In the shadow of Medgar Evers and tensions around civil rights, the group knows that they are certainly putting their jobs and income in peril, and perhaps their lives and the lives of their families. The stories themselves are sometimes horrifying, sometimes tender, sometimes disgusting, sometimes compassionate, which parallels the relationships between the white women and the black women in these master-servant relationships. There is an intimacy that comes with spending so much time together, handling the tasks of house, raising someone’s children. Sometimes that intimacy leads to compassion, sometimes to hostility.
As I said before, I enjoyed the novel for its compelling story and characters. I would recommend it for your summer reading.
However, large parts of the narrative are written in the first person perspective of two of the African-American women, and those sections are written in dialect. I had a vague sense of unease as I was reading, knowing that Stockett was a white woman writing in dialect. The characters themselves are strong and fully formed, but I wondered about her boldness in choosing to write in first person. While the first person narrative did resemble the style of the book-within-a-book that the novel’s characters were writing, I think it was a risky choice for Stockett to make. Even unintentionally, a white author claiming to speak with the voice of an African-American woman, and even to speak her thoughts, seems like a situation ripe for projection, as white women have been projecting thoughts and feelings onto black women for centuries. Then again, I’m not sure that the novel would have been nearly as compelling without that first-person narrative from these two domestic servants.
I found myself reading cautiously throughout, wondering if Stockett had really given voice to this experience, or if it was just another white person thinking they know what it’s like to be black. Then again, maybe she conducted interviews similar to the white character in the novel. Then again, how will we ever work to overcome racism without this kind of exploration and imagination?
I enjoyed the story, yet the unease remained. Perhaps that is a good thing–to remain slightly uncomfortable, because it means that the story carries us into unfamiliar territory, outside the comfortable race roles and expectations. Or maybe I’m uncomfortable because it doesn’t. I still can’t decide.
I encourage you to read The Help for yourself and find out. I’ll be curious to hear from those of you have read it—what do you think?
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)
This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.
Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960′s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.
It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.
The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement. Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:
Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:
“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”
So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.
Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.
My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.
Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.
Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.
We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.
Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.
I think I have finally found what I’ve been looking for. Not the faith that Pagitt describes—I found my way to a Christianity worth believing a long time ago, and have been living it for close to 20 years. But I finally found a book that describes it in a concise, approachable, passionate, inviting way.
I had my spiritual crisis with Bible, God and church when I started college. The things I had always believed about the inerrancy of the Bible, the demands of God for Jesus’ blood sacrifice, strictures of gender and sexuality (including the gender of God) no longer made any sense. After years of struggle, I found a faith rooted in the earthly, embodied Jesus who calls us to build the real life kingdom of God by using our bodies in earthly work of peace, justice and service, welcoming all.
In my ministry, I frequently talk with people facing a similar spiritual crisis to my own—they are questioning long-held beliefs about atonement, salvation, scripture, Christology and more. For years, I have been searching for a book to share with them to help them see that there is another way, that to reject much of that theology is not to reject Christianity or a life lived with the God of Jesus Christ. I have bought and read all kinds of books in this arena—John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Peter Gomes, Diana Butler Bass. While many of them are great books, none quite fit. They were either too intellectual, too theological, too angry, to directed at church professionals or not enough about the personal life of faith.
A Christianity Worth Believing has finally given me the book I’ve been looking for. Pagitt intertwines his personal story in and out of faith with theological questions and concerns. That transforms the book from being a theological treatise trying to make an intellectual argument into a spiritual journey that connects with anyone who has ever questioned their beliefs while still trying to hold on to faith and Christian community.
Pagitt addresses almost all the same theological concerns as the other authors (with the exception of a section on gender and sexuality). Instead of emphasizing history and biblical scholarship, he talks about how he experiences God as loving and living, and how he tries to practice loving and living with God. It changes the entire tone from one of intellectual speculation about faith to an account of a real, living relationship with God and with other people trying to follow God. Pagitt does offer some history and scholarship, mostly around the influence of Greek culture on the Jewish Jesus. I thought the way he traced the most troubling issues back to the Greco-Roman dualistic world view a little bit too simple to account for everything, but it was accurate and insightful. I wouldn’t have liked the book nearly so much if he had tried to make an exhaustive Christian intellectual history. He gives a brief explanation about the roots of a particular belief to show us it is culturally bound and we can let it go. Then he tackles the far more important task of explaining the good news of Jesus in a way we can understand.
One of my favorite sections in the book was the chapter called, “Down and In.” After describing the classic drawing about the gap between God and humanity, and the accompanying theology that the sin and death that can be overcome only by Christ’s sacrifice, he labels that image of God as “up and out.” The “up and out” God is perfect and removed, and unable to love us fully because of our imperfection. Pagitt replaces that theology with a God that is “down and in,” a God who is engaged in the world and loves us even in our sinful condition. He describes people who give up their faith in response to a life crisis because they have only known an “up and out” God: “They haven’t been given a picture of God as one who cares, who listens, sustains, cradles, cries and is right there with them all the time.” (p. 110)
Pagitt’s book connects us with the “down and in” God because his writing itself is down and in. It does not remove theology from context, but places the questions about belief squarely in the center of an earthly life seeking to be lived with God. He confesses to the struggles and mishaps of his own life, and invites us to join with God in partnering to live and love and work together to build the real-life kingdom of God right here and now.
Pagitt’s book is a great starting place for those facing a crisis of faith with the “up and out” God, or any of the traditional “fundamentals” of Christianity. Rather than just presenting an alternative theology and assuring us that there are other Christians who believe this way or think this way, Pagitt shows us that there are other Christians who actually live this new faith with passion and love for God. When you read it, you can’t help but want to be part of that exciting Christianity worth believing in. I think I’ve finally found the book I’ve been looking for. I can’t wait to start sharing it.
It happened again. Someone joined the church who was too excited. They came to worship for the first time and swooned all over—singing the praises of the church, the people, the preaching, the food, the fellowship, the programs, the children. Immediately, they asked to join. They came to everything in that first month. They attended every worship service, answered every call for volunteers, showed up enthusiastically to every event. Always, they were filled with love and you could feel the joy they felt at being in church, our church.
When I first started out in ministry, I used to get really excited about these kind of newcomers. I imagined them to be fired-up leaders who would come in and boost the energy of the church. After a few more years of experience, my first reaction to these over-enthusiastic newbies is deep concern and worry. In my experience, these types of visitors-turned-members flame out within a matter of weeks. After jumping in and becoming a fixture at everything in church, I look up one day and discover they are absent. At first, I figure they just had a scheduling conflict, or finally realized that most people do not attend every single church activity. But then they miss another program, another Sunday, another event, and I realize they are gone.
I always call, and they are almost always happy to talk to me. They do not express doubts or anger or frustration about the church, no cataclysmic event that turned them away. They are still as excited and proud as ever to belong, but their commitment has fizzled out as fast as it caught fire.
I am troubled by these travelers, because I don’t know why they come, why they disappear, or what we could do differently to shepherd them into a deeper, more committed relationship to Christ and the church. Perhaps they think they have found perfection in the church, only to discover we are human, imperfect institution like everyone else. I attempt to warn them, but it doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps they get burned out from getting involved in so many things so fast. I try to warn them about this too, but it’s like talking to a teenager you can’t convince you know anything valuable. Perhaps they just had a temporary gap in their lives, and the church filled it for a month or two. When the need ends, so does their connection to the church. I take consolation that we were there when they needed us, and perhaps they will return when they need us again. Perhaps they are desperate for connection and community, and we did not welcome them deeply enough, quickly enough to satisfy. I work to help them make friends and social connections with other members, but these things can’t be forced or rushed. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps—the experience remains a mystery to me.
Does anyone else have experience with these kind of short-term enthusiasts? Do you have additional theories or strategies? Have you found successful ways to pastor/shepherd them through the transition from smitten lovers to committed partners?
Marilynne Robinson is the master of tension. In Gilead, the tension is all internal, as she dissects the mind of Rev. John Ames, the Congregational preacher haunted by loneliness, history, guilt and grudges. Home moves down the road in the town of Gilead, to examine the family of Rev. Ames’ best friend, Rev. Robert Boughton. Rev. Boughton is the Presbyterian pastor and father of a brood of children, including his eldest son the perpetual troublemaker and disappointment, Jack. The story in Home takes place as Rev. Boughton has reached the age of infirmity, and his daughter Glory returns to take care of him. While she is there, Jack returns home after an absence of 20 years.
The tension in this story is no longer contained inside one man. Robinson writes with such subtlety and beauty that she creates a tension between Glory, Jack and their father that made the book almost agonizing to read, as I felt every small slight, strain and stress between them. Both characters and readers are rewarded, however, when the ice slowly begins to thaw between them, and Robinson treats us to glimpses of true grace, forgiveness and love. She explores what it means to be “home,” the place that seems to exist only in recollection, and is therefore both permanently fixed and constantly elusive. In the end, Glory, Jack and Rev. Boughton find home with each other, if only for a short while.
One of the great gifts of Robinson’s prose is its ability to capture a level of spiritual honesty, born of a long friendship with God. She records Rev. Boughton’s prayer on the first evening of Jack’s return, as they gather awkwardly around the table for dinner and forced ease and familiarity:
Holy Father…I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. Because I always knew the time would come. And now I find that words fail me. They do. Because while I was waiting I got old. I don’t remember those prayers now, but I remember the joy they gave me at the time, which was the confidence that someday I would say one or another of them here at this table. If I lived. I thought my good wife might be here, too. We do miss her. Well, I thank you for that joy, which helped through the hard times. It helped very much…
The prayer continues, but that is just a taste of the intimacy and beauty of Robinson’s language. I want to write an entire sermon about hope based on that prayer—the way that prophecy and hope help us find joy in the hard times, trusting that the joy will come from God someday.
Another insight on prayer, as Glory struggles to deal with the complexity of her love, anger and frustration at her brother:
Her father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity, for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be. The Lord knows your needs. So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would by my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse. But it cost her tears to think her situation might actually be that desolate, so she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding–for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake.
There’s an entire sermon on prayer in that paragraph—about honesty, about God’s ability to hear the things we cannot say and see beyond the words we can utter, about taking our brokenness to God, and on and on.
The novel is full of incredible moments like these, passages that call out for further contemplation. It should be savored for all its rich layers of flavor and meaning. Home is a thing of beauty, and so is Home.
Ah, the wisdom of Paul and Linda McCartney! Have you heard it, church folk?
The world is an ever-changing place. Each generation displaces the one before. New technologies render yesterday’s marvels as obsolete junk. Taste, preference and popular culture shift constantly. People die, and other people are born. Old things sometimes want to die. New things want to grow.
Far too often, we in the church forget this cyclical rhythm of life. Programs and ministries of the church are a part of this same ebb and flow. New things grow, old things die. In spite of our fervent belief in resurrection, we seem unwilling to let go and trust that God can birth a new thing in place of the old. Instead, we exhaust ourselves in seeking every means of life support available to sustain a ministry that has no chance of long-term survival. It is not the dying of old ministries that makes us feel weak, exhausted and hopeless as the church—it is the fact that we are drowning in life support for them.
Just today, I was visiting an elderly member who said, “Oh, I hope the Women’s Fellowship keeps going. It’s been such a good thing over the years.” I agree with her—our Women’s Fellowship has been a huge part of the growth and ministry and service of this congregation for over 75 years. They are currently down to less than 15 participants, the youngest of whom is approaching her 80th birthday. They are a shadow of their former selves, when women gathered 100+ strong and wielded significant political and financial power within the church.
However, the Women’s Fellowship is also still a vital and vibrant ministry. They gather once a month for a meeting and program, usually a study of a bible-based book. The group leads our ministry to homebound members, ensuring that everyone receives a visit and a card once a month. They sponsor the education of a girl in Sri Lanka, and make small contributions to various charities throughout the year. Their members are happy and engaged in leadership, and other than occasionally leading Bible study, they thrive without staff or pastoral support.
In spite of their continued vitality, they are still an aging ministry that will probably die out when its current members can no longer sustain it. Like its members, the Women’s Fellowship is nearing the end of its life cycle. Women’s roles in culture have changed. Most women now work outside the home and are not available for daytime meetings. Women are no longer barred from serving as officers and leaders in the church, and they find their opportunities for leadership throughout the congregation. Gender-based groups are giving way to affinity groups based on age, family status, hobbies, interests and time.
As the pastor, I will be there when the time comes to help the remaining members of the group to celebrate the life of the Women’s Fellowship and to grieve its passing. That time is not now, but it is in the foreseeable future. I will help the church to understand what it will mean to lose their ministry to homebound members, and determine how to find new ways to connect with these lonely souls. This work will be difficult and painful at times, but I do not expect it to be frustrating, exhausting and hopeless. I believe it will be holy.
What would be exhausting and defeating and depressing would be the tasks required to keep the Women’s Fellowship alive, the measures of life support. Begging younger women to attend. Moving the meetings to an evening in the hopes that working women will jump in. Investing hours of my time and energy to design flashy new programs and bible studies. Heaping guilt upon women who could attend but choose not to. Taking on the tasks of leadership myself, since there is no one else to do it in the group. We could do all of those things, and chances are that the Women’s Fellowship would still die, albeit maybe a year or two later. Chances are even better that we would all end up feeling bitter, exhausted, disappointed, guilty and hopeless about the future of the church. We would see the death of this aging program as a failure on our part.
McCartney’s words are good advice for the church: “But if this ever changin’ world/In which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say, ‘Live and let die.’” Letting something die is not a sign of failure, but a sign of faith—faith that the God of Resurrection can bring new life out of death. That new life will not likely be the victory we expect, the program we planned or the old body we once inhabited, but it will be holy, hopeful, alive and energized to meet the needs of the changing world we live in. And so will be the church that welcomes it.