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.

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Third Sunday in Lent: Busy Woman Called By God, Again.

 “How is it that you ask….?” John 4:9

Life is hectic. Life can be down right hard. Life is also full of the holy. Life is full of the unexpected. And occasionally the ordinary tasks of life are holy and unexpected, for it is the midst of daily life that God finds us.

In the narrative that we hear from the Gospel of John this week we hear the Samaritan woman asking Jesus “How is it that you, a Jew, ask me to get you a drink” (John 4:9). Yes we know the next line of the gospel almost by heart it is an explanation that Jews and Samaritans don’t speak to one another. This is confirmed later in the text when the disciples return and are flabbergasted to find Jesus not only speaking to a woman but a Samaritan woman!

I am sure that most of this has been pointed out from countless pulpits today. I, myself, however, I want to just slow the whole reading at John 4:9. I want to simply turn over and over the words “How is it that you ask me?”.

Many people, but particularly women, know what it is like to have a person come up and ask you for something. It sometimes seems that we do so much to care for so many persons. Life can lead us to think that we simply don’t have time for one more thought or one more task…and always someone will appear to ask. And then we have to reply.

As I read this text I wonder at the tone of voice the Samaritan woman used. The tone of voice of voice she used would have contributed much to the meaning of the conversation. Was she snappy? Was she annoyed? Was she exasperated? Was she using a question to tell him to buzz off? We don’t know her tone, we can only guess. It does seem she is a little amused–this man wants water from a deep well but brings no bucket.  I almost cannot help but hear her insinuating that  Jesus is simply being silly, at the very least she seems to indicates she believes he is ridiculous.

Jesus responds to the Samaritan woman “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who saying to you…” (John 4:10). “If you knew…” ok, let’s stop the text right there. Jesus knows all the worries and pressures on this woman, as is confirmed later in the text. She is a busy woman, with many people in her life, she comes to draw water from the well which can not be simple because it is a deep well. Her life is about existing in both practical and social terms. She is a woman of ethnic identity who is looked down upon by others. She knows oppression. She knows manual labor. She has not sent a servant to fetch the water so she may very likely be poor as well. And here is Jesus interrupting her busy life, getting her attention, to tell her about the One who can provide living water.

Yes, the text is about living water and racial strife and getting to the Truth of the matter…we hear that each time it appears in the lectionary and all of that is important. But in the quiet of this text, if we stop to hear Jesus say, “if you knew….” Then we may also find God, and the Son of Man, coming to find us where we toil. Coming to interrupt our work…interrupting our gathering of basic needs to say there is more to living than toil, I, God can provide what you more deeply need. This is not to say that basic needs such as food and water and shelter are not important they are and God is concerned about these. But God is concerned with the spiritual aspects of our lives that are much deeper than our physical needs ever can be. And Jesus finds this woman at her toil to teach her this.

We know how the narrative ends. The woman is converted by her encounter with Jesus and goes out to proclaim his holiness to her village. She proclaims Jesus as a prophet, That is the ending of this narrative. We all have encounters where we feel God is with us, teaching us. When God comes to us to offer depth and meaning and we find ourselves busy with the daily tasks of life how do we respond?

Oh God who inspires all things. Grant me discernment so I may head your call and your meaning no matter what task I may be involved in, when you arrive. Grant that in my busy-ness I may hear you and seek what you have to offer in that moment. Grant me your peace and courage to respond to you, even if social taboos would have me shy away from doing so. Refresh me and send me out to my community anew.  Amen.

Collared

It is the first week of Lent and I may have already failed one of the major challenges of the Lenten journey. I am not one to give things up for Lent, and I have been notoriously bad at picking up a new spiritual practice to carry for the Lenten season. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard, or perhaps I am like most people. Or perhaps since Valentines Day fell on the second day of Lent this year, I could not create reality out of the notion of giving something I liked up and chocolate being present at the same time. See, this Lenten stuff all gets very complicated.

I did actually take something up for Lent this year, more specifically for Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain I have found that Ash Wednesday is probably the one holiday that I am called upon to function as clergy in ways that many parish pastors do. In fact, it is the only Christian holiday that calls for me to prepare and led a worship service in the context of my ministry setting (memorial services are different.) So this year I decided to go for it! Inspired by Womenspirit’s sale, I ordered a clergy collar shirt! I was not at all sure it would arrive in time for Ash Wednesday but it did,  so I took it as a sign that I should wear it to work.

The shirt is a lovely royal blue. The collar was tight and uncomfortable but we became friends by the end of the day. I have to be honest. The context in which I minister is one where my authority as a woman clergy person is regularly challenged and occasionally outright denied. This is not specific to my context, its specific to mainstream American Christianity, I know this. Several of my colleagues had encouraged me to wear a collar to work, Ash Wednesday and the need to lead a service, seemed the perfect day, so I did it.

This is what I learned from a day in the collar. The collar has power. There is no doubt about it. It  defines one’s role–as I found I did not have to introduce myself as the chaplain because people assumed. A collar defines one role and authority externally but internally as well. I felt more confident in my role, and there was I felt flow of respect towards me that I don’t always experience. It was as if the sight of me in my collar demanded a recognition not often granted.

It felt great! And that is where I failed, or so I thought. Yes it did feel great to experience authority and respect in ways I do not experience it when I am not wearing a clergy collar. But this was not exactly the rush of new found authority and sovereignty, as in the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. It was not that because it was not lasting. It was not that because it was not ego-infused. The clerical collar will come off and former patterns of relationship will no longer be interrupted by its presence. I thought I had failed a Lenten insight because I had experienced for the first time the authority people grant to those in the collar, and I thought it was good. I did not fail, because I realize that experiencing the power of  this authority was not about me. The only authority I have is the authority entrusted to me by God to care for God’s people. It is the authority of the yoke, the predecessor to the collar. The authority granted to those who answer the needs of others, even when that collared individual may desire to choose another way, like sleep. The collar is powerful, but it is not the power of authority, only the power of authoritative servitude and reluctant prophethood that flows from answering God’s demand to love others.

Praising with a Piano

Some women don’t just speak in church. They play. They minister. They love. They be.

One of our friends, Delores Fisher, Minister of Music, is one such woman. Delores holds at least one Master’s degree and is a lecturer with the Africana Studies Department at San Diego State University and is also a Dance Studio Ballet piano Faculty/accompanist. In the spirit of Psalm 150:3-6

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

We share with you her latest YouTube production.

She Who Calls

Michelle Obama was speaking at the Convention about how adults within the community influence the young people and look after them, even when the adults in question are not their parents. The point was the important role that all members play in shaping the lives of the growing generation…. And then my phone rang.

I did not hear the end of the speech.  But I heard the voice of our church secretary passing on the news to me that one of the members of our church, I’ll call her Antonia, had died about an hour previously.  It is not news that most people want  to hear. It was not unexpected. Our pastor had told me the Sunday before that the time looked more like numerous hours than days. Antonia had beaten cancer before. I remember when she gracefully stood before our congregation to tell us all how much she sincerely loved each and every one of us, and how she now had stage four cancer and was not expected to live more than two years. It tugged on me. I knew that she had loved the life she had lived, and was continuing to do so. I hated the news. I loved seeing her children move closer to be with her and the joy on her face as her grandchildren became involved in activities at church. But as a hospice chaplain, I knew it was unrealistic to expect a single soul to face cancer and win twice. I think she knew I saw the same writing on the wall that she did. But we never talked about it. Instead we carried on our relationship as it always had been only with more hugs and words and glances of affection.

I was not her pastor or her chaplain. I, however, was also not just another member of the congregation either. I grew up in this particular congregation. I had known Antonia probably since I was six months old–my entire life as far as I am concerned. Antonia, you see, had been one of those adults who makes a profound affect on the growing generation. She had been a teacher, I am sure she affected the lives of many youth. But this about she and I. She defended my mother’s right to be a single mother, in the days when that was not quite the trend it is now. She was one of my first Sunday school teachers. She was one of the “proper and successful” adults to remark on my maturity and confidence as I grew through adolescence. She and her husband danced at my wedding.  As a young adult trying to establish a life she made it known to me, very intentionally, that I was never alone, that she was there. And somewhere in between there was that day she called me….it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

She: Hi Kelli. I was meeting with the Trustees. We are trying to fill the church leadership positions for the next year. And well, we decided that since you are already teaching the Sunday School that you could take on the role of Christian Education Director.

Me: What does that mean, what do I have to do?

She: Don’t worry you’ll be great. Thanks! (end of conversation).

I should probably also say that Antonia’s skill as a successful member of the nominating committee pretty much went down in the history books after this stunt. She was just not a woman I would say no to, about anything–and she never exploited that, so I always simply trusted her.

Little did I know, when I hung up the phone that day that Antonia had set my life on a path that would change me and my path forever. I ended up being the Director of Christian Education for two or three years, and only left it  for a required internship with another congregation (whom I also loved). But, it was during my time as Christian Education Director that I came to realize that six of the ten children in my Sunday School class had siblings or parents with disabilities and that this affected all of them–and that somehow I was called to address this. It was during my time running the Sunday School I came to learn that I loved teaching and wanted to teach in the church in some capacity for the rest of my life. It was in the time after Antonia called to tell me  that I was not only needed but was GOING TO do THIS work, that I finally embraced the call to seminary and ministry. Yes, there have been several literal phone calls that have vaulted me into new forms of ministry, but this was one of the firmest and the one to which there was only one answer.

I am not the pastor of the church that Antonia and I shared for thirty-five years, but I am a chaplain in part ordained by this congregation to the work I do. And I must admit its been hard to know my place, in this situation, at all times these last several months. Wanting to run to her, as the youth I have always been in relation to her and to tell her how much she has influenced me. Wanting to embrace her with all the love I could, and the skill surrounding end of life care I have acquired, and simply not knowing what role to play. In the end I was simply a member of her church congregation, and perhaps that is as it should be. But knowing how Antonia had embraced me with her genuine love and simple concern throughout my life, it was nearly heart-rending to know it was not my place to get into the car and drive to her home and sit with her family the night she died. Dinner had already been provided by the congregation and the pastor was there; and as a chaplain I know that more people often create more chaos in the hours just after death, I did not feel it was my place to impose that night.

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The greatest saints who call and nominate the members of the church to ministry never really leave us. I think in even in death part of them remains with the church and the clergy they have called, whether as cheer leaders, challengers, or  simply out of pity and remorse I can not yet say. I have decided that I may still have to thank Antonia for that call so long ago. That I may still need to express the many effects it had. But  for now, I think I’ll continue to wait. I think I’ll just have to thank her when I know how it all works out …just to be sure …she didn’t have the wrong number after all.

The Ordination Paradox

Amanda Kersey just got ordained and is singing I'll Fly Away

“How does it feel, Rev?” “What’s it like?” “Are you used to it yet?” These are just a few of the questions I have been asked within the last couple of weeks after my ordination. To be honest I feel a mixture of emotions and think I will for some time. After the first week at the surface I felt relief, excitement, happiness, contentment, confidence and to be honest a little sadness. However, after my second week there was new deeper emotion and I couldn’t name it. It was bothering me so badly I actually had to stop blogging to figure it out. To put it simply, I feel that a wrong has been righted. And with that there is new found stillness in my mind, soul and body. A stillness that in some way feels distantly familiar.

Listening to all of the human interest stories from the Olympics helped me articulate what was going on for me. Hearing some of the inspiring stories and sacrifices the athletes made over the years—something I can halfway understand as a former USS and collegiate swimmer. However, for me the swimming analogy is a little deeper. I’m still not really sure what happened to me as a swimmer and to be honest I’m not sure it was just one thing. It’s more like it was a perfect storm. It’s not something I totally regret, because I truly and deeply feel like I am exactly where I need to be in my life and the bad and the good attributed to me being where I am. I do, however, feel that what happened to me as a swimmer had a good chance of repeating itself in my professional career and calling. I felt that old urge to settle, buckle under, back off because my drive upset others (having moms of my teammates yell at me in the locker rooms) and do “just enough.” I gave in for a while allowing myself to be walked over, overworked and underappreciated in my marriage and in the church. As a kid I was at the mercy of others, but as an adult it was all me and this time enough was enough. I thought about the words of Christ that we are to forgive seventy times seven. I also recalled the biblical examples of where people parted ways without cross feelings, but with an understanding that it just wasn’t working. For me I worked hard to forgive not only others, but myself for allowing myself to be used in those ways. I had to make the decision to walk away from my spiritual tradition in 2008 in order to do what I know I am supposed to do now and set myself up for the future. It was an excruciating and yet beautiful process, one I have both hated and loved.

I ignored the pulling in my life towards ordination for years for many different reasons. I knew my life would have to drastically change—I knew it would expedite the end of a significant relationship, bring some dissension within my family and force me to break ties with a religious community that once loved and nurtured me and I it. However, the scariest part of ordination was the internal dialogue I had to engage with myself and God as I had to consider what it meant to follow a God that I felt was calling me out of and against everything I had been taught and believed for so long. When God lives in a box and Gods actions and motivations can be surmised in a nice tightly wrapped systematic theology it’s easy to get comfortable and dare I say arrogant. This process broke me in new ways as I had to come to the realization my two degrees in religion speak more to the fact that I enjoy academia than my understanding of God. God has once again shown me that the truth of the words of Isaiah, “God’s ways are not my ways and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). I was once again reminded that when God calls us out into new places there are critics on all our sides, encouraging us to doubt and question and even at times suggesting our faith is immature and misguided. However, I have once again been reminded to claim the truth that the voices of the many do not outweigh the whisper of the One. I’m not saying I didn’t listen to others. In fact I believe others are a way in which God speaks to and through us. However, it felt too reminiscent and I had given in before, but not this time.

July 22, 2012 I was ordained in the UCC after having hands laid upon me both literally and figuratively affirming the call of God on my life and having a church promise to support me. This public affirmation for me once again brought a deep sense of healing making visible something I had only been able to imagine. I have known the call on my life since I was 17, but to have it confirmed in front of witnesses transforms the internal into the external causing something mystical and supernatural to happen. The wrong had been righted. After years of being denied job applications, having to have checks from the church written to my ex-husband instead of me for the work I had done and even having churches offer to pay for his seminary and not mine all that injustice has been righted. Now, I am not one of those who believe that the past is somehow magically erased, but I do believe it can be shelved. I don’t want to forget, because it is what drives me to look for others who have had similar experiences and creates in me a new found sensitivity.

There is no anger or resentment (anymore). I am truly grateful for a religious upbringing that introduced me to God, taught me so much about spiritual discipline and gave me a love for scripture. I’m forever thankful for the roots, but sometimes plants are uprooted and replanted in order to fully grow. The sadness of ordination has been that there has been very little acknowledgement from people in my past—the tradition which I left. I’m sure it’s because some think I have lost my mind or at least temporarily gone insane. Perhaps some think maybe if it’s not acknowledged it does not exist. However, the support I have received has been amazing and for right now that is enough. It’s already opened up some interesting opportunities to meet others. All in all I’m pretty excited about the future, but also feeling grounded in the present.

Ordination on YouTube

Here is the final playlist of videos from my ordination. There are five videos that will play straight through if you let it, or you can use the advance button to get to the next video.

  1. Thoughts before the ordination
  2. Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas’ sermon
  3. Special music: Lois Myers sings “Be Strong, Take Courage”
  4. Ordination liturgy including laying on of hands
  5. Unedited complete service