Bitch, a meditation

In Nashville last weekend, there was a Friday inauguration day march, explicitly intersectional and put together by a conglomeration of groups whose concerns and members will be negatively affecting by the new president. Renters’ rights, refugee and immigration protection, and LGBT advocacy to name a few. S and I were running late (first we nap, then march) but caught up to the march as they walked across the downtown pedestrian bridge with signs, chants, drums, and even a small brass section. We were peaceful and law-abiding, with a significant number of marchers in reflective vests working to keep things moving and signal vehicles. We sang, “We Shall Overcome” and “Which Side Are You On?” We laughed and looked out for each other.

How many times that night was I called “bitch,” walking in my city with my baby, singing and chatting? Two times? Ten?

How many times have I been called “bitch?” From those first murmurs in junior high when I came back at a boy who touched me to now, leading meetings and challenging colleagues… how many times have I been called “bitch?” And why that, in particular? That word originally meant to describe a dog, used now to dismiss and dehumanize, to reduce me to animal property.

This week I came across this beautiful essay about the difference between a “nice girl” and a “kind woman.” This author was too gracious to offer the other term for a strong, kind woman: “bitch.”

Consider the (not unproblematic) white feminist embrace of “Nasty Woman,” our new president’s verbal attack on his debate opponent. I was not a wholehearted Clinton supporter, but this slur was not directed at a political rival, a debate opponent. It was an attempt to verbally diminish her right to be there. It was a slight to any woman with the nerve to question, resist, stand up, formulate independent thought, do the homework, and assert herself.

“Bitch” is for a woman with the gall to march and sing through the evening, bringing her baby and her anointing oils, all her vocations, into the public realm. “Bitch.” That one jarring, harsh syllable so discordant with the snaking line of determined and joyful people moving through the city like a stream, so wrong for a healer, so untrue of mother, partner, and friend.

“Bitch.” It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.

Vetiver, palo santo, geranium, basil, sage, grapefruit, bergamot

Tomorrow…

My baby boy has been this side of the cervix for 201 days. Probably 100 days of this I have talked to him about being kind; about using words in conflict; about how it’s ok to be afraid or sad. I tell him that want him to feel all of his feelings but that he’ll need to learn to express them in healthy and responsible ways. I tell him that his dad and I are doing our best and that’s the most anyone can do in this world. I tell him that he has been unjustly given power and he will have to learn how to give it away, and I tell him that we baptized him because he has also been given grace, which is very different, and also needs to be given away.
Tomorrow I might cry and wonder why and how, but then I will tell that little white man all these things again, and then we will march.

Talking with kids about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have the great joy of working part time at St. Augustine’s Chapel in Nashville. It is a beautiful community of people who are actively seeking healing for themselves and the world.

We’re a predominantly white congregation, and in preparation for our participation in Nashville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March, I developed this quick sheet for talking with kids about King and the Civil Rights Movement. For well intentioned white folks, it can be a struggle to know what words to use, because many of us were taught that to speak of race at all is a racist thing. The last thing we want to do is mess up and instill harmful ideas in our kids. But studies have shown that not talking about race replicates our white supremacist social structures about as well as outright racist propagation. So however muddy and difficult, white people of faith and goodwill, we’ve got to do our work around race, and we’ve got to start at home. Talk to your kids. Read the books. Head out to local MLK Day events, and for heaven’s sake don’t let that one holiday be the end of it. Keep an eye out for ways to plug in with Black Lives Matter. Pay attention to local legislation that might replicate injustice for people of color and the poor. Patron black owned businesses on purpose. Listen deeply to the world. Take your kids with you, and keep talking about it.

This is written with white families in mind, and I wanted to share on the off chance that it can be useful to your family or faith community.

“The Journey,” by Mary Oliver

I need this piece of good news  at least every year, and maybe you do too.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Grounding

The Refugee God and the Work of Christmas

New Year’s Day Sermon
Isaiah 63:7–9; P
salm 148; Matthew 2:13–23
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville

Howard Thurman: “The Work of Christmas”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Well, here we are, soaking in the Christmas season and bringing in the new year together in worship, looking ahead to our resolutions and hopes, the return of school calendars and normal work schedules. We don’t get to stay in the stable with the heavenly host and the mind-blown shepherds, the gift bearing magi, and the blissed out new parents. The sweet scene of the nativity that we so love to see enacted by our children in the pageant and maybe adorning our mantles through the holiday season is brought to a sudden stop—no, not by New Year’s Eve parties—but as Matthew’s gospel continues the story with a dark turn. Quick, we move to the next chapter after the magi leave, the angel appears again in a dream.

Pause. Breathe. Hear. Let us listen to these verses in a fresh way. Let us sit and be mindful of how quickly life shifts from birth to death, from joyous to horrifying.

Imagine waking up in the night in a cold sweat, daddies, from a nightmare that a tyrant was coming for your baby.  Doesn’t it make your chest hurt and your pulse quicken? Imagine that this nightmare is so vivid that you can’t get back to sleep, that you have to get up to look at your boy and see that he’s ok. Imagine that your partner is disturbed by your tears and your restless tossing and turning, and now, both awake and terrified, you stay up talking till morning and finally decide, “We have to go.”

Matthew puts this story in the legacy of the Exodus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” God has always been showing up in the brutal journey of the refugee, the tired eyes of parents leading their children to an unknown future.  And this story is also connected to the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke to the destroyed and occupied Jerusalem. God has always been showing up in the aftermath of human violence.

Over the holidays, I took some time to catch up on books, tv shows, boardgames, and movies with my partner, friends, and family. One thing on my list was the documentary short released on Netflix earlier this year, “The White Helmets,” which portrays the work of civilian rescue workers on the ground in Syria. I watched the film. Then I did some research.

I’ve been hearing about the air raids in Aleppo, the ceasefires that fall apart, the children and civilians who are being targeted, and felt that wave of despair, practically palpable through the radio news. And unfortunately, reading up on the history of the current civil war didn’t bring much political clarity or a sense of how to do my part to change or improve anything. The civil war is a hot mess, with local conflict becoming a proxy for foreign governments, continued destruction of civilian homes and hospitals, and more than 11 million people have been killed or displaced.

Not much has changed about war and empire over two thousand years. King Herod presided over a system that benefited a few elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Wars and empires, then and now, privilege the comfort of a few over the lives and safety of many.

Each morning, the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense gather at their center, and then suddenly, as they sit chatting over breakfast, the sound of a jet rushes in, slicing through the calm morning, and the men abandon their plates and rush out. They discern the direction of the next bombs, and head to the site in a cargo van. They leap into action, pulling the wounded and incapacitated out of bombed out homes and alleys, before the next overhead pass ends hope of rescue. They carefully remove the dead from piles rubble, treating bodies with the tenderness fitting someone’s child, parent, dear sibling, closest friend. One man said that he tries to rescue every last one when they’re called to a scene, because it truly might be his family one day. There is a deep personal urgency to what is happening—there’s no space to distance themselves from the work.

And there’s not much space to distance yourself as a viewer of this short film. It was hard for me to watch. I could only take it in 5 and 10 minute segments, taking a break to breathe and gaze at my healthy, safe family. But turning it off wasn’t an option. The white helmets, these dedicated, devoutly Muslim, family men, blue collar workers turned everyday heroes, drew me in. They save the vulnerable, clear bombed neighborhoods, bury the dead, comfort the suffering, console the grieving, inviting me to witness as they proclaim gospel: “All lives are precious.”

And this is the gospel, the work of Christmas. We see God born to peasants, lying in a feed trough, recognized by all sorts of folks, and then on the run from a violent system, far from home and familiarity.

Matthew shows “God with us,” God’s saving presence, at the peak of human vulnerability, right in the crosshairs of violent power structures. And Jesus doesn’t affirm what is happening—his very presence as a prince of peace, made known to shepherds and magi alike, is a threat to the powers that be.

We have a working class, unhoused, refugee savior who calls us to notice Emmanuel, God with us, in and among the people we understand to be the “least of these.” We have a story of God made like us, but not all of us—God dwelling in a particular way that signals to us that in a profoundly practical way, brown skinned politically marginalized lives matter.

And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, how do we now live into the work of Christmas and set our eager new-year-resolved hearts to the task? How do we put ourselves in fellowship with the refugee who bears the image of God, with our weeping mother Rachel?

When we think about the refugee, I want to be careful that we don’t over-spiritualize this in a way that turns our attention from the real refugee crisis happening right now.

But it can be overwhelming—Where do we go from here? What can be done a world away?

We lament. We pray. We contribute to global relief and new social enterprise to help the displaced. We make our city and neighborhoods and homes places of sanctuary for those in need of home and safety, whether displaced from Nashville or Aleppo. We keep our eyes peeled for the toxic self-preservation of Herod at work in our communities and in our own hearts. And like our brothers at work in Syria, we keep the faith, keep showing up one day at a time.

In the midst of stories of suffering, the white helmets share the story of Mahmoud, a baby who at one week old, was rescued after 16 hours under the rubble. The men in the film follow up with him, now a chubby, active toddler. He is perfectly clueless of the grace and hope he holds in his life, in his very body. But the white helmets talked about him again and again, the sign that their work is meaningful. The story of this life spared, this possibility of a proper future beyond the death of the civil war, keeps them moving.

So like the prophet Isaiah, may we  keep telling the story, recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord. Keep telling the story of how God brought us into freedom, and stay mindful of those who are still fleeing, still wandering, still in need of safe refuge. May we be transformed from discouragement to resolution, from despair to engagement, from apathy to intentionality, from helplessness to creative courage. And may the strength of the knowledge of the God’s redeeming work and the rise and fall of those beautiful words, telling the story of Word made flesh, become the steady rhythm of the Spirit leading our steps into the work of Christmas:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Amen.

A prayer for the mother of a white son

God, the loving Mother of all,

Thank you for this little incarnate grace entrusted to my care.

Grant me grace to show my boy deep tenderness, that he might show it to others in turn.

Sustain calmness and radical mindfulness in our home, that he might resist the temptation to prove himself by busyness and accomplishment.

Grant me the discipline and discernment to care for him and grant his desires without catering to his every whim, that he might appropriately deny his more destructive desires of body and power.

Bring clarity in my identity and persistence in my calling, that he would witness and respect the power and personhood of women.

Grant me empathy, that I might remember that he is but one beloved child among millions, all equally precious and deserving, and humility to recognize that even his precarious moments occur in privilege and safety.

Strengthen my resolve and attention in his formation, that we would both grow in the knowledge and practice of justice that takes place in the details.

Remind me that Jesus, your son, a brown skinned refugee child, killed by the state, calls me to divest myself of power and work for change, and raise this white son to do the same.

Amen.

Valor

The child, the child, sleeping in the night…

Last advent, I was a few months pregnant and consistently a weepy mess about anticipating birth and the fine line (if there is a line at all) between the immanent and transcendent.

This year, the wonder of my sweet babe at Christmastime has been undercut by the anguish of teething, final exams and papers, and one head cold after another cycling around the family. Between shopping for gifts, work gatherings, and our diocesan clergy conference, the spirit of Advent has been elusive, hiding behind the irritation and mundane.

Then this past Sunday, S. got to be the baby Jesus for the St. Augustine’s Christmas pageant. He was the fattest snaggle tooth Christ child you ever did see. I wept with pride and I will hunt down every single picture that was snapped of the precious scene. Poor pastor’s kid.

IMG_4783.JPGBut the real magic of it all happened on Saturday, when we headed over to pageant rehearsal. We were running late, and when we got to the chapel, the full nativity scene was on display, sans costumes, and the narrators were running lines from the lecterns. As we walked down the center aisle, one of the directors said, “Look everybody, baby Jesus is here!” And all those kids stopped and turned with audible “Oooooh”s and a few “Hooray”s. Mary and Joseph held out their arms for him and marveled over his toes, his fuzzy head, his Santa jammies. After the run through, there was a short line of 9 or 10 year olds who wanted turns holding him. The smaller kids wanted to see and touch him too, with the parental admonishments of “Gentle!” or “Just one finger!” “Don’t touch his face!”

In childhood, there’s a beautiful blurring of factual and mythical. The different kinds of true and real that we more efficiently categorize as adults are somehow spun together without contradiction. Suddenly S. is not just Miss Claire’s baby that we see every week (although, of course, he is). He is the baby Jesus (although, of course, he isn’t). And this incarnation stops them in their tracks, trumping the glamour of the King Herod costume and the hilarity of the three-person camel suit.

The complete awe and focused attention of a stage full of children snapped me back to attention. Not attention to my own child, really, but to the icon of Christ he can be. S. points to all the complicated mess of incarnation in all the sweetness and frustration of babyhood. Jesus arrives in ice storms and head colds, with diaper rash and reflux and sore gums, calling our attention to the presence of God in the inconvenient. 

Frankincense and myrrh, of course!