Reality Not Satan

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’~Mark 8:31-38 NRSV

Many times in Christian tradition we hear Jesus referred to as the “Great Physician”. In this week’s lectionary I think we see Jesus the Great Physician, in rare and honest form. Jesus is giving his disciples a very clear prognosis. Peter, like so many of us, responds with denial –the first stage of grieving. Peter is so like us.

I remember sometime in late 2002, I sat in a orthopedist’s office. He spoke to me about the MRI of my spine. He used words I did not, yet, know.  What I most remember is “by age 40 you’ll be using a wheelchair or in need of spinal surgery.” NOOOOO! My brain, like Peter’s could not process it. I could not conceive of what he said. My mind shot out firecrackers of um so I worked my way through years of painful, confidence shattering physical and speech therapy to cope with Cerebral palsy, and now you are telling me that I am going to need to use a wheelchair anyways? Then what has been the point of all the work everyone told me was necessary and good? What then has been the point of my life if not to exceed expectations? If I can no longer do that who am I?  His words could not possibly fit into what I knew of life.

Peter rebuked Jesus not out of stupidity, although the writer of Mark sometimes portrays the disciples that way. Peter’s reaction to the news that Jesus would die was not really inspired by Satan, but by the very human experience of not being able to connect new information to what was expected based on a very real and human understanding of the world. Peter could no more conceive of the Messiah dying on a cross, then some people can conceive of a woman who used to have a speech impediment preaching. Peter is not very different from the families I meet who can not believe that their loved one on hospice is actually dying.

We live in a society that teaches us that physical change and decline is unacceptable, that it needs to stay hidden or be “put away” somewhere. But that is not how real life is. We are born, we age, we decline, and we die. Jesus is stating a very matter-of-fact truth about human life. Still like Peter we resist it. We resist change. We don’t want to believe that the real plan might be different from our plan. The influence of the Greek cynics is strong, we hear it from the men who die along side Jesus “Physician, heal thy self” / “Save yourself if you can”. That is what Peter expects–triumph against the world and the expectations of history.

Jesus, however, invites us forward into the very history we resist. Jesus calls us to the new. When my chronic pain started in 2002, I hated it. I wanted to go back the time when life itself was not a struggle. I took me a while to learn that was not going to be an option. Life became the unexpected. Somewhere somehow I realized that the pain might change my life but would not end it. I lost the competitive swimming, lost some ability to do the physically taxing book art that I loved, and lost some of the activeness I was known for. It seemed like I lost me. In time I realized that was all wrong. My acquired disabilities invited me out of the shadows. I could not hide my chronic pain as I had learned to compensate for and hide my cerebral palsy. A nun who had spent most of her career working with people with developmental disabilities, and was my supervisor, thought it was great fun to fold her arms over her chest and point out to me my very CP personality traits. Then there were the old ladies who sat behind me at church, who saw how much it hurt for me to stand or hold the hymnal in worship. They forced me to try a cane. I did not like any of it, but recognizing my real needs helped. It was when I could accept my acquired disabilities that I stopped denying my native disabilities. I learned to accept myself. It has made all the difference. To come out as who I am as a disabled woman has also allowed me to become an advocate, to make the world a more welcoming, accepting, inclusive world. That is not the work of Satan, it’s the work of accepting reality and following Jesus wherever he has us go.

Ash Wednesday: Lent, Sin, and Liberation

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel 2 12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.  

The season of Lent is upon us again. It is the season of introspection, reflection, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Of course what tradition calls us to reflect upon in this season is our sin.

Sin, we all know what it is. Theologically, much could be written about what sin is, and who is responsible for it at which times. Its seems I read several books explaining this in seminary. Practically speaking, however, we know that sin is it is the difference between “right” and “wrong”. Despite all the clamor of theologians, “sin” is a basic concept we apply to explain the breaks in our relationships with other people and with God. It should be a simple thing, right, I mean we teach children to get along so they don’t have fractured relationships, right?

Perhaps sin should be a simple concept. Alas sin has never been a simple concept–whether we are talking about the notions of sin and purity in the Hebrew Bible or what sometimes seem to be convoluted discussions of sins of ancestors and forgiveness of sin in the New Testament.

Discussing the nature of sin, however, is important. Particularly when we want to welcome and include people with disabilities and persons with mental health concerns in the lives of our congregations. For centuries, and still in some regions of the world today, disability and mental health concerns were attributed to the result of unreconciled sin. For centuries humanity confused theology for science. There are scriptures that do equate disease with sin, we should not ignore those scripture but wrestle with them. There are also scriptures that assure that disease is not the result of sin (read Job).

In this scripture from Joel, the prophet is calling for repentance. However, the prophet is also teaching and reassuring us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”. As a woman with disabilities there is great liberation in hearing from the prophets that God does not punish, much less inflict disability, and that indeed God waits for all of us “rend” our hearts and turn to God. There is a time to wrestle with the hard scriptures to search out the meaning and nature of suffering, this is not something I shy away from. However, as I start my Lenten journey of searching myself for what I can do to bring forgiveness and healing into the world, the God who is “gracious and merciful, …abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” seems like a far more welcoming travel partner  to me then a God who may break my leg in retribution if I trip along the way.

“Run Free”?–An Ontological Question

Sunday morning in church the choir sang an amazing anthem. One line of that anthem stuck out to me and has left me pondering since the service went like this “…the lame will run free”. The anthem was speaking about the world as if settled in the Kindom* of God. The image of the lame walking is a standard image found in the Biblical narrative. It is not so much a literal image as it is one of the metaphorical images used to depict the the Kindom of God where right relationships are restored and persons are liberated to be who God made them to be. An image used to show that the Kindom is real and here on earth.

The line from the anthem stands out to me because this making the “lame” to “walk” has theological implications of personhood and ontological implications of our identities in the afterlife. Its a question I hear only quietly asked between friends, even within the disability community. It is not so much an opposition to the metaphorical image of making the blind to see or the lame to walk being symbolic of the Kindom of God, for of course there is an expectation that the Kindom of God will bring many things that we can not now imagine and that there with be a wholeness of identity and personhood that is beyond our mortal understanding . But between friends in the disability community, I have yet to met one persons who thinks or wants to arrive in the Kindom of God “cured” and without their impairments. No, my friends are not in need of psychological assistance, on the contrary most are clergy and have passed psychological background testing and others whom I have had this conversation with are PhDs. This issue here is not what the Kindom of God brings or does not bring, it is not an issue of God’s power needing to be made manifest, the issue is ontological individual identity.

“Of course I will have disability in the Kingdom of God!” I have a clear memory of a friend proclaiming this to me. It was not a denial of all things being made new in God , but an assertion that the identity that God created in her was GOOD (see Genesis)! The identity of people with disabilities  is what often gets misunderstood when we toss around ideas of the mute persons talking, the blind man seeing, and the woman with a limp suddenly having none.

As human beings we are embodied beings. Just as Jesus came to know the world by becoming incarnate, we come to know the world, build relationships with others, and come to know and understand God through our experience of being in our bodies. It is hard to deny that our bodies impact our identities. Look at how the theory, theology, and lived experience of the GLBTQI movement over the last twenty years has demonstrated how our experiences of embodiment impact our identities. It would be impossible for me to know how not growing up being ridiculed and bullied for having a speech impediment, physical slowness, and poor balance would have impacted my identity. Do I, personally, think I  will have a speech impediment and poor balance in the Kindom of God? No, actually I think in the Kindom of God I have a voice, power of communication, and poise that actually compels others to listen to me–because that would the topsy-turvy righting of relationship found in God’s Kindom. As a person who has lived with chronic pain, do I believe I will have pain for eternity? No I do not. ButI do think my experience has taught me that human beings have limits; that is not necessary or even desirable to be able to anything one wants at anytime. I have learned humility, and grace, patience and perseverance. Pain is a teacher and gaining  experience in how to learn from subtle experiences is something that offers profound spiritual lessons. They are not lessons about have speech impediments nor are they lessons about pain. They are lessons about getting to know oneself in relation to self, others, and God.

So I am left wondering who is going to “run free”? And why? Is it something within their personality that leads them to want or need to “run free”? Or are we finally going be able to “run” as we are without the judgement of others suggesting that we need to run, even though that may be uncomfortable for us. (Please don’t make me think about school “Field Days”, as I would consider those days to be one of Dante’s many circles of Hell.) For some of us, people with disabilities, the metaphors of the Kindom of God maybe what they are—we can’t change the scriptures, and its beautiful poetry so why would we want to? But why are the people with disabilities the only ones who have to be “transformed” to fit into the Kindom? For myself, and others with disability, it is more of an ontological question. God made me this way, and it is Good. Given the nature of my ontological being as a person with disability; given the fact that my personal identity is defined by experiences of disability, to what degree to I fit the “normalcy” of others in the Kindom of God? Why do I need to run, when I am already free?

* “Kindom” is not a misspelling of Kingdom, but an intentional feminist interpretation of the Kindom of God where equality exist between people living together as God intends

the short story of solidarity

As I sat in opening worship of Annual Gathering, there was a bird flying around the sanctuary. The bird seemed happy to be flying about, landing on the small trees near the altar. I wondered if the bird was trying to find its way out of the church. Then it occurred to me that the bird was the Holy Spirit, happy within the church, and yet also belonging to the world outside the church, and perhaps even trapped by the sanctuary walls. I found solidarity with the bird.

Grief

 

Buber and Kelli

Buber and Kelli

I never saw this coming. My beloved Buber the Dog died on March 12, 2013. (Yes, as in Martin Buber, I thank those of you who get that, because it was essential to his canine-ality.) We had taken him to the Vet ER because he suddenly could not stand up, would not eat, and looked like he might be in pain. They took x-rays, said his skeleton was fine and suggested that we follow-up with a neurologist which we planned to do. We took Buber home. He looked comfy and sleepy on a cushion we had for him. I asked him if wanted to go “out”, he lifted his head and torso to look over at me and then just flopped back down as if wanting to sleep. I turned off the light and left the room to let him sleep off the pain meds, little did I know that was my last conversation with him. Less than two hours later I went to pet him good night and found that he was already gone.

We had a home vigil. Burial in the high desert at a friend’s ranch.

I am a hospice chaplain I work with loss and grief all the time. But this has got to me in ways nothing else has. Perhaps it should. This was my and my husband’s beloved dog, this was family, this was my baby. This was the animal that just simply wanted to be next to me all the time, and when I was home he mostly was next to me. This was an animal who connected to my soul–Buber was his name.

Now Buber is dead and buried and life is all odd. I come home from work and there is no pup, if my husband is out there is simply no one there. The house feels empty, and yet somehow it feels more like home now and less of a convenient rental. Things that seemed so important no longer seem so important, and I have this urge to simply slow down.

I know all about grief, intellectually. and personally. I have lost many loved ones to death. Professionally I see death so often it is a real presence. But this is different.  I feel ridiculous. I work with dying people and grieving families, and the death of my beloved pup has turned my life upside down. But I think this is the way it should be.

We feel the pain of loss to same extent that we have loved–and love survives death. It still seems sacrilege to not say “hello” to Buber when entering the house. I look for him in all his favorite spots. And every time I imagine petting his beautiful fur and know I will never get to do that again, tears well up in my eyes. I have done the shock and disbelief. My anger and bargaining have been intertwined….if I had known he was dying….if only I had not been so busy…..thank God he did not die three days before when I was away on a church business trip…. I have even berated myself for not seeing the signs and symptoms of canine dying, thinking that as a hospice professional I should have foreseen this—we don’t always see it even in people, and I had never seen a dog die. Death can surprise you. I have been unkind to myself.

There will be firsts. Like today, we washed the bedding and no more will there be Buber on the bed. And yet in my mind’s eye, I am sure I saw Buber sitting on the clean bedding as I walked by the bedroom just before dinner. When I watered the fruit trees and roses in the yard, Buber was no longer in the yard avoiding the water hose (he did not like to get wet, but he found the waves at the beach fascinating).  Nonetheless, I had the sense the other day that he walked around to the back of the house as I was watering. Yes, I put down the hose and followed just to check his favorite spot to see if he were there.  And I keep forgetting that I don’t have to worry about Buber catching his ear on the rose-bush and getting his ear pierced by a thorn. I am sad that I don’t have to throw the lemons that have fallen on the ground straight into the compost because they may have dog pee on them and thus would be unfit for human consumption. Mostly I am sad that as I write this post Buber is not sitting next to me–often he would  get up on the bed and cuddle next to me as a wrote or use the foot of the bed as a platform to nudge me at desk if I were sitting there. Nope, now it is just here, me, writing on my own…and horribly undistracted. I hope I still will have something to say. Those eyes had much wisdom and grace and taught me so much.

I know the fifth step of grief is acceptance. I am not ready for that yet. I still feel that a part of me has been ripped away with no chance for goodbyes.  But what would I have said? “Don’t go?”  That would only be cruel. “I love you and you are the best dog ever?”–I said all that. He had had pain medication, so if he had pain that had been addressed and he was at home with his people, where he would want to be. So I am assured that Buber the Dog had what we call in hospice “a good death”.  People and food were the most important things in life as far as Buber was concerned. In fact, being and dying at home where he could hear his people talking and fretting over what to do for him next may have been exactly as he wanted  it to be. It was all very hospice like really. I still  feel like this was sudden and I am not ready to accept it.

Yes, l may likely get another canine in time, but there is none like Buber the Dog and his sweet soul that poured the love of God right onto you whether you thought you needed  it or not. The loss of such a being I cannot accept right now, and maybe at least, theologically, I can never accept. May we all meet a living being sometime in our lives who simply think we are worthy of all the grace and love they can bestow. Though I bid adieu to my theological pup and I am pretty sure that I now not only have a direct line to God , but also a fan putting in a good word for me with the Supreme Deity, whose heart will also melt at the sight and touch of the floppy ears

Buber th Dog's resting place

Buber the Dog’s resting place.

 

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Bearing Witness

Sometimes I feel like I live on the road. I commute, I travel to people’s homes to do chaplaincy. My car is my office. I live in southern California–traffic is horrible! While I have thought of getting a catchy licence plate or clergy bumper sticker I have hesitated to do so. Why? Because I drive 500-700 miles a week on southern California freeways…and people do stupid things on the road… and I, well, I like to use my horn! I try to be polite on the road. I know that the time I arrive is not as important as how safely I arrive. I do drive through some beautiful areas and I try to enjoy the scenery. That being said I have seen road rage, perhaps I have even felt rage on the roads at times. I do not like driving as much as I do. Yet this is a necessary part of the work that God seems to want me to do right now–and that’s a whole ‘nother blog!

What annoys me most are those big traffic slow downs. You know the type. Traffic just slows down and seems to come to a halt; and then you realize that all this is due to some looky-loos staring at an accident on the side of the road rather than driving like they should. These slow downs annoy me because they seem completely unnecessary and all they do is slow me down when I already have too little time for the important stuff.

Recently I found myself stuck in one of these slow downs as I drove home from work. It was the dark side of dusk and I saw in the distance the red and blue flashing lights of a police personnel on the side the road with more than one car, a sure tip off that it was an accident and not a traffic stop. Come on people, you can do nothing about it. Keep moving. Mind your own business. I want to get home already. I thought as I approached the scene. And then as I passed the scene, I looked over and saw the people on the side of the road with the bumpers torn off their cars and a new wave of compassion came over me. And I realized, what if the other drivers slowing me down are not just annoying looky-loos looking to peer onto another person’s misery, or looking for a bloody scene? What if they are bearing witness to the trauma and pain of the people on the side of the road who had had an accident?

Now that’s a thought. As I reflected on this idea of looky-loos bearing witness to the troubles of others even as they are keeping me away from home longer on an already too long day it became apparent to me that there is some theology going on here, some moral and ethical working of the post-modern age taking place right before my eyes. Its true there was. Even in this age (are we still in the post-modern age or is it post-post-modern? well what ever age it is), even in this age when we are so seemingly glued to our individual experiences and mediating relationships through cell phones, text messages, smart phones, and ipods, it seems that we still respond to the misfortunes of others. And, that is hopeful. For here it was before my eyes, four our five lanes of bumper to bumper traffic slowing down as if in acknowledgement of the pain being experienced, in that moment, by the stranger they were in the process if passing by. And is not the call to bear witness to our fellow human begins not central to core of our biblical teachings? I mean bearing witness is the first step in “doing unto others”, to helping those with need, being the good Samaritan, to being our bothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Wow, I thought. That, thought. That’s something. Maybe, just maybe there is still hope that we have not, even in this technological and individualistic age, driven to far off track.

Observing Epiphany (When Epiphany Wasn’t Cool)

I’m sorry, but the Lectionary readings just aren’t doing it for me. And to be honest, I am just not interested in parsing some verbs or offering some kind of literary criticism or insight of scripture at the moment. I am, however, into fun. So let’s try something different.

At the risk of sounding a little like Sophia from the Golden Girls, picture it: we’re in Marietta, Georgia, maybe in the late 80s. It’s Christmas, which is the only holiday my mother would decorate for. After all, everyone knows that Halloween is “the Devil’s Holiday” (I am being sarcastic). My dad has managed once again to string the 15 foot Santa and reindeer replica between the two trees in our front yard. The Christmas tree with all its different colored lights and icicles is sparkling in the living room. It’s late. My parents are in bed and I am sneaking down the hallway with my Rainbow Bright in hand, quiet as a mouse. (Don’t act like you don’t know what Rainbow Bright is.) I get to the living room, now crawling across the burnt orange shag carpet, past the wood paneling that would really mess with you now. Finally, there it is! The Nativity. For some reason I was fascinated with the figurines. I am not really sure if it was the real hay or the fact that I played with them like dolls, but I remember spending hours on the living room floor playing with the nativity pieces.

Having some 20-plus years to think about this childhood experience I think I have made some conclusions. I think I was fascinated because the traditional nativity scene just throws everyone together and when you think about it… what a bunch! There are angels, a young mother, a carpenter, shepherds, and Magi—all of which are hovering around a little baby in a feeding trough. Even with this kind of diversity, the Magi stood out for me. I remember thinking they were a tad overdressed and that their presents weren’t really practical for a baby, but as a kid that is about as far as it went. As an adult I can see why I was intrigued back then, because even now I am still intrigued. There is just so much we don’t know about them. For example, do we really know how many there were? We don’t know at what time in Jesus life they visited. We don’t really even know what they did in life even though some scholars have suggested they were astrologers. There are more questions than answers. What we do know is that they are the proverbial Other. They represent the Gentile, the foreigner, the outsider, and yet they were beckoned to come and see about Jesus, a Jew.

Even with all the mystery that surrounds them we do know two things. Scripture records the Magi as having brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are those who ascribe symbolism to the gifts and that may be the case; it is interesting to note that such descriptions are given about the gifts and not the givers. Scripture also states that through a dream the Magi were warned about Herod, thus making them protectors of the Christ child. The Magi, whoever they were, journeyed together, brought gifts, and eventually become the saviors of the child. I love it! For me it is the quintessential expression of inclusion.

Those many years ago as a child I was celebrating Epiphany when Epiphany wasn’t cool, and I didn’t know it. I was observing the power and importance of Emmanuel. I recognized that God beckons all ranging from shepherd to Magi to come and see what God has done. Perhaps it is a lesson I had forgotten as an adult and needed to be reminded of through the eyes of child that with God, all are welcome!