Monday, July 30, 2012

Be Kind to the Mind

Once a quarter, the Sunday service at Open Table (United Church of Christ) features the story of one of our members or participants.  On "fifth Sundays" a volunteer shares with us a story from her or his faith journey.  We cultivate storytelling as a spiritual practice because we are storytelling creatures. Telling our stories is a way of doing the inner work of reflecting spiritually and the outer work of connecting to others.  We help hear one another into awareness of God's work in our own lives, and we listen in these sacred moments to ways we can join in God's work in the world.  These stories always seem to include experiences of pain or challenge as well as increased compassion and hope.

But these stories are often difficult to tell and meant for our community alone, stories shared among a people where trust has been established.  

Last night we were honored that one of our own shared with us the story of her struggle with mental illness.  We heard of the terrors experienced from delusional thinking and visual hallucinations.  We learned of a ten-year struggle to find the right medications and overcome the burdensome stigma of mental illness, of one caring doctor who "never gave up" in those ten long years, and of a faithful life partner, too.  And we received important facts about the prevalence of mental illness that cuts across all demographic categories.

Thankfully, our society at last is being more enlightened about mental illnesses and disorders and less skittish about discussing and disclosing them.  We are hopeful that medical research is coming ever closer to understanding and addressing, for instance, the skyrocketing number of children being diagnosed with autism, and of elders dealing with Alzheimer's.  We pray for for treatments to help teens and adults experiencing eating disorders and drug addictions and postpartum depression and bi-polar disorder and alcoholism.   

The Justice and Witness Ministry of the UCC advocates for mental health.  Our denomination has declared: Good health is part of God's intention for all people. Health involves the whole person, body, mind, and spirit. Health is a concern of the whole community and healing and health care are valid ways of proclaiming the gospel and ministering in the name of Jesus Christ.”

In lieu of a sermon, I share today the link to an article by a neuropsychologist that offers all of us a practical perspective on ways to minimize harm that can come to our minds and bodies.  I've preached before on themes related to facing into our pain rather than remaining in denial.  This article does not contradict that point but balances it helpfully, I believe.  It came to me through the wonderful Charter for Compassion, which I follow on Facebook: .  

Here is the article by Dr. Rick Hanson:

Just One Thing: Minimize Painful Experiences

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Sermon Text:  Ephesians 2:14-22

Friday before last, George and I crossed the Alabama River into the city of Selma by way of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Suspended beneath the steel archway glinting above us and the water flowing darkly below, we were crossing into another place and time to do some bridge building of our own.

Named for a Confederate officer, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was constructed to connect people on opposite banks of the Alabama River. But on a day in 1965, a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, that bridge morphed into a wall.  On one side of the wall were peaceful citizens marching for the right to vote.  On the other side of the wall was the highway to the state capital and the powerful ones who could grant them this right.  In the middle, armed law enforcement officers blocked the civil rights marchers on the river’s east side, closing off access to the Montgomery highway and beating women and men trying to cross that bridge--trying to BE that bridge--to a united Alabama.  It would take two more attempts later that month and even more bloodshed before the Edmund Pettus Wall was “broken down.” Only then could the Edmund Pettus Bridge be a genuine sign of God’s eternal enterprise that is making us into--using words from Ephesians--“one new humanity in the place of two.”

One does not easily cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Even 47 years later. Especially if you grew up in Alabama.  Especially if you grew up in Selma. 

So there we were, 47 years after Bloody Sunday, 40 years after George graduated from Selma High School. We had traveled to Selma to attend the first real high school reunion the class of 1972 had ever held.  We came mainly because we learned the class reunion organizers were aiming to bridge some lingering divides.
Apparently a few partial reunions had been held over the years, but they’d been small and (intentionally or not) racially segregated affairs.  Maybe this was because in pre-Facebook times there was no easy way to contact alumni, many of whom had moved away, and because the alumni had thought of themselves as a “class” only briefly.  The white and black students who graduated together in 1972 had attended racially segregated schools until 1970, so the Selma Saints of ’72, 60 percent black and 40 percent white, had planned their senior prom together and played on the football team together and served on the student council together, but their togetherness looked at times like a carefully negotiated treaty or an awkward if mostly polite social experiment.

We know that Selma, Alabama, did not invent racism; that prejudice is found in all regions of our country; that hatred hides in every human heart.  But in 1965, Selma became the poster city for racism.  George and his classmates have carried the legacy of their hometown history with them—on their professional resumes, into casual conversations with strangers on planes —and have borne the judgment that sometimes follows.  You experience it, too, don’t you--when you travel to Boston or San Francisco and your accent betrays you and you finally disclose you’re from Alabama?  But just try naming Selma as your hometown. Selma happens to be both an ignominious symbol and a very real place inhabited by all kinds of people, good and bad and in between.

George learned this reunion was being planned mainly by African American classmates.  He also heard that few white classmates were planning to attend.  To be more accurate, he heard that most of the white classmates who still lived in Selma were opting out. Now there are lots of good reasons not to attend a high school reunion.  And it's impossible to know another's motives.  But some white classmates who’d moved away—who’d permanently crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge themselves—began making plans to attend the reunion.

It became important for George to be a part of that kind of reunion.

But to be honest and to get straight to my point—breaking down those dividing walls is hard and unending work.  Despite our best intentions, we who attended the festivities did not always engage in that work successfully.

Unfortunately, George and I may have accidentally triggered plans for what became an all-white pre-reunion dinner on Friday night.  The reunion itself was to kick off with light refreshments and drinks at a reception at the historic St. James Hotel at 7:00.  We wanted to have dinner first, so George invited a former classmate to meet us at a restaurant before the reception.  Soon that person invited others and eventually someone reserved a private room for twenty former classmates. All white. We hadn’t intended to be a “whites only” group.  But forty years ago the white kids had been friends with white kids.  Ironically, the only place in Selma for such a group to dine was a private dinner club, the tired but pretentiously named “The Tallyho,” whose purpose forty years earlier was to provide Selma’s white citizens with a legal way to maintain a segregated restaurant. 
We gazed around the table that evening to find only white faces in an establishment historically associated with segregation.  As that irony was dawning on some of us, we wondered aloud why the white classmates who still live in Selma weren’t planning to attend the reunion.  Our tacit assumption as the white out-of-towners—maybe not a fair one—was that some of the people who had stayed in Selma had retained old prejudices. One woman at dinner theorized that only those who’d moved away from Selma were able to get enough distance on the culture to reject racism and return in a spirit of reconciliation.  Another countered it had been their racial integration experience in high school that had itself caused a major shift in their worldview, which in turn caused them to leave Selma all those years ago. Which might have been a cause and which an effect?  Recognizing racism or leaving Selma?  Our analysis came to a pause as an African American waiter refilled our glasses.  We drank in the realization that, however inadvertently, we had begun the reunion by re-constructing a wall.

Upon arriving at the St. James, we consciously sought out African American peers.  George and I listened to stories of personal successes and well-lived lives and felt happy for folks who had risen above the expectations of those times. As we gathered on a balcony and looked down on the Alabama River below, words and feelings flowed easily, genially.

In some conversations among the former Selma High Saints, we lamented that only about thirty white classmates had decided to come. But as we did so, we’d looked up from a freshly formed conversation group to realize we had moved back into the old race-based groupings, as if the black and white classmates were the proverbial oil and water.  We would create that night a mixed-race conversation group for a while, but soon a new person would enter our group and another person would leave it and before we knew it, we had separated again into all black or all white groupings.  Over and over we saw before us the evidence that it is a harder engineering feat to build a bridge than a wall.  

Some segregation, based on fear and prejudice, is methodically deliberate and hurtful. Some segregation-- born of habit, convenience, legitimate need, or chance--is unintended, even inevitable and morally neutral.  I’m not saying we should have engineered a social event into a human resource workshop.  High school reunions are not the way to right personal or societal wrongs. And I admit that, as a spouse to a Selma Saint, I was an outsider to an event I'm oversimplifying now to express what I personally needed to understand more deeply: a not-so-new realization about the intransigence of racism..  

We at Open Table aspire to be a multiracial church where all feel welcome. There IS great diversity among us.  But wouldn’t we all want to see even greater racial and ethnic diversity here?

The writer to the church at Ephesus urged those Jesus followers to bring together Jews and Gentiles as one humanity.  Glance back at today’s focal scripture. I’m going to gloss it as if it were written, not to Christians in Ephesus in the first century, but to Christians in Selma in 1965 or 1972—or to Mobilians in 2012:
14Jesus Christ is the embodiment of peace; in his flesh—that is, in his body, in the disparate parts of the body of Christ, which is the church--he has made both groups (black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, citizens and undocumented immigrants) into one. The Jesus way of peace has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between you.  15The Spirit of Peace took away the old hostilities supported, for instance, by Jim Crow laws that kept you segregated. God made you into one humanity, and the ongoing experience of the living Christ continues to teach you that you can experience the peace of God within and without because you have access to one and the same Spirit.  Begin by knowing God's peace within. Only then can you live in peace with others. 16And Christ reconciled both groups in one body within God's love through the cross—the cross being one of those places where God-directed ones side with the marginalized and refuse to return violence with violence. Jesus' cross was nonviolent protest on a cosmic level. Thus Divine Love put to death that hostility through a radical symbol of love—which, unfortunately, the KKK later set afire to create their symbol of hate. 17But Jesus proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near; 18for through him both groups have equal access in one Spirit to the Source of Love. 19So you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are all equal in God’s eyes. You are equally Selma High Saints and, more importantly, you are all also equal members of God's family, living in a house 20 whose foundation was built by God lovers who’ve gone before you and with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The cornerstone does not create barriers; instead, it brings people together. It joins a structure21 which then grows into a sacred site 22 where we are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. When we can come together, and put aside hostilities, and give up the categories of black and white, us versus them, gay or straight . . .  we become that place where God takes up residence!

It’s not easy.  Even when we stop overt hostilities, we must, by God's grace, give up the cruelty of indifference, the selfishness of inertia, the assumption that someone else will build the bridge, the delusion that racism or the other evil isms and phobias are gone. Building bridges takes intentionality, responsibility, courage, vigilance.  

And it takes time.

Contrast, if you will, the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the Living Bridges of Meghalaya, India.  

As this video will explain, for hundreds of years the inhabitants of this remote region have trained trees to grow into bridges that cross raging rivers otherwise unbridgeable during the monsoon season.

With constant cultivation, the trees’ tangled root systems keep the banks of the rivers from washing out.  Villagers bend and intertwine roots that sprout above ground level so they eventually connect to trees on the opposite bank and so form bridges that can hold the weight of 50 adults.  This network of dozens of living bridges connects the valleys of Meghalaya. The bridges can last up to 500 years if maintained.  But maintaining the bridges is never-ending work.  The video shows a man teaching his young niece the art of tending and guiding the roots. He tells her, “Your children will use it and your children’s children.  It will grow for generations.”  He explains that it is she who must continue building this particular bridge after he is gone because no person can complete the task in one life time. 
No one person and no one generation will ever complete the bridges our culture needs.  We must show our children how to be bridge builders.  We must be spiritual engineers and architects throughout our lives:  breaking down the walls, creating living bridges, making of our collective lives a temple where Christ is the joining cornerstone and where the Spirit of Love dwells.

God, let us be a bridge of care connecting people everywhere.
Help us confront all fear and hate and lust for power that separate.*

*from Ruth Duck's hymn "Diverse in Culture, Nation, Race"

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sabbath Time

For 53 consecutive weeks I've posted on this blogsite my weekly sermon to my congregation, but I'm vacationing this week. A colleague in ministry preached at Open Table yesterday and will do so again this coming Sunday.

If you have been following this blogsite, thank you. If you want to read a sermon from "That Preacher Woman" this week, you might choose for this week a previously posted sermon.  Thanks to all who have been supportive of the ministry of Open Table UCC.

Thanks to  Rev. Bart McNiel for filling the pulpit at Open Table.

Thanks to the beautiful and beloved members of Open Table: A Community of Faith (United Church of Christ) in Mobile, Alabama, for their receptiveness to a voice for progressive Christianity. 


Monday, July 2, 2012


Text: Mark 5: 21-43
     Today’s Gospel reading gives us more detail, pathos, and suspense than usual from the terse writer of Mark.   How can our hearts not go out to a dying twelve-year-old girl—and to her father, so desperate to save her that he, an important synagogue leader, falls prostrate before Jesus?  How can we not be a bit repelled—let’s be honest—by a woman with an embarrassing gynecological condition, a woman ostracized for being ritually unclean, a woman who waylays Jesus as he's en route to the child?

As I think about Jesus being called, simultaneously, to heal two desperate people in two separate locations, I think of the classic superhero dilemma. You know. Where the bad guy creates two mutually irresolvable disasters, and Superman or Spiderman (yes, comic books require a male hero) must decide if he will save the woman he loves or an entire city doomed for destruction.  He can’t be in two places at one time.  Neither can Jesus—who’s not even a real superhero.

Then I think about my own limitations, and yours, as we join Jesus in healing a wounded world.  Must I as a minister of the Gospel, must we as a caring congregation, must all of us as citizens of this nation whose founding we celebrate in three days—must we do triage to help the few we can?  Must we admit our personal, congregational, and societal limits in order to do some bit of good, or else waste our efforts on those beyond saving, or quit trying altogether?  

I suppose this week’s top headline brought the problem of human limitations to the forefront of this Gospel reading for me.  You know the headline I’m talking about but which CNN and FOX news both got wrong when they first broadcast it on Thursday. I’m talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Affordable Care Act IS constitutional.  With all the attention on what some derisively call Obamacare and its promises of universal healthcare, I’ve tried to imagine what Jesuscare looks like.   So I’ve looked with fresh eyes at today’s stories about Jesus’ health care plan for the kingdom of God. 

Not that I think the Bible contains instructions for reforming health care in America.  But Mark’s Gospel says an awful lot about healing.  And I do find in today’s paired healing stories something that prods me to ask about the personal and systemic limits we face in addressing problems today as U.S. citizens and as modern followers of Jesus.

On the surface, this Gospel passage suggests there are no limitations on Jesus’s healing.  Everyone, it seems, has access to his miraculous power: from the twelve-year-old daughter of the prestigious synagogue leader to a woman considered ritually unclean because for twelve years she suffered from menstrual bleeding.  Both the privileged and the pariahs are healed.  Both the petted and the pathetic.  Yes, even gynecological issues are covered under Jesus’ health care benefits.  Even a woman abused by the previous health care system that had, the story says, taken her very last penny but had left her sicker than before.  Even a woman with the “preexisting condition” of a twelve-year-old illness.  (The number twelve repeated in this story, by the way, signifies completeness, fullness, as in the twelve tribes of Israel, as in the twelve disciples.)  Jesus’s plan seems to cover everyone fully.  Even the desperately poor.  Even a seemingly incurable woman all other physicians have failed to cure.  Even a seemingly dead girl.  I’d call that universal health care.

But surely there are limits to the resources that support Jesus’ health care system.   True, he heals many. But he didn’t heal everyone in the enormous crowds clamoring for his care.  How many others never got close enough to see him, much less to touch his garment?  How many others called out to him in vain? And what was the cost to him and his followers for these healings?

Jesus himself knew human limitations.  He was not a nonstop healing machine.  At times he had to withdraw from the crowds to replenish his body and spirit.  As I gratefully anticipate the first week of vacation I’ve had in a year, I understand the need to withdraw for a while.  But I wonder . . . whose suffering went unrelieved while Jesus rested?  Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus growing overwhelmed by the crowds.  By this point in Mark’s narrative, readers start realizing Jesus is not going to be able to keep at it much longer.  If you try to heal everyone, then your limited resources—physical or financial or spiritual—will run out, right?

Let’s peek ahead in Mark to see if that’s the case. Immediately following today’s two stories of healing, Mark tells us Jesus traveled to his hometown of Nazareth—where it turned out that he tried but “he could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6:5), and Jesus’s skeptical homies scoffed at this prophet who was without honor in his hometown (Mark 6:4). 

Jesus had limitations.  But just because our resources are finite does not mean they are ineffective. Limited beings can still be powerful and generous and selfless and, indeed, innovative and collaborative.  Notice what Jesus does next to make his healing ministry sustainable.

Immediately after disappointing his hometown, Jesus implemented the next phase of his ministry, which was to instruct and then send out his disciples “two by two” (Mark 6:7) and Mark tells us they “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:13).  An episode of failure perhaps created a paradigm shift for Jesus.  A healing ministry becomes sustainable only when others are empowered to participate as healers. 

For us, new church, this means that our growth, impact, and sustainability are tied to our willingness to share leadership and train others in the healing ways of Jesus and include all in a ministry of hope.  A Jesus model of leadership starts with a healer, who taps and trains others, who further maximizes the healing impact by equipping still others.  Members of our new church council will be talking with you soon as they seek to share leadership with you. Healing happens best in community. Today’s hymn expresses this idea as a prayer: “Healer of our every ill . . . teach us ALL your way of healing.”

For folks like us, raised in an individualistic and competitive culture, a dying child and hemorrhaging woman might seem to be competing for limited health resources, and we may feel pressed to choose which one gets our care.  We might be susceptible to inflammatory threats of "death panels."  Certainly resources are limited.  Hard choices have to be made.  Caring for our neighbors is not a license to be fiscally irresponsible.  I’m not so idealistic that I don’t get that. I don’t want my grandchildren to bear the burden of debt I help create. We must consider those who are not yet on this planet.  And there are many ways of understanding how we can do that best.

Yet I believe this also to be true: we have more than we think we have. We can cooperate to equip others to be healers of broken communities. That’s what the story of the feeding of the 5,000 teaches a few verses later.  If we don’t grasp our own fish and bread too tightly, then all will have enough.  We don’t have limitless resources—as a church, as a nation, as a planet.  But we have enough if we are compassionate.    If we prioritize care for one another, maybe my good health does not have to cost you your health.  If we can hear the words of Jesus to Jairus, the distraught father: “Do not fear; only believe," then healing can happen.

Even within our own congregation, if we all give in ways that truly challenge us, so that our giving then changes us, so that  we practice giving as an essential spiritual discipline, so that we cultivate gratitude and generosity, so that we don’t deplete some leaders without ever engaging others—then everyone receives what she or he needs.  If we as a faith community take turns serving and being served, giving and receiving, the healing ministry of Jesus is continued in a sustainable way.

Another way of facing the limits—within America’s newly upheld healthcare system or within Jesuscare—is to ask if our healing mission should be broadly or narrowly focused?  How specific is Jesus’s mission statement?  I’m told that a really good mission statement is precise enough to guide an organization in every decision it makes.  But Jesus’s great commandment to love God, neighbor, and self seems broad.  And I wonder if today’s story suggests Jesus himself got diverted at times. 

I hope he did.  I think he did.  What I love best about this story is that Jesus is on his way to help one person but gets detoured by another who reached out to him, and he paused long enough to do the deeper healing of her soul.  He said he was going to do one thing, but he ended up doing another.

Have you ever taken a detour in life?  Have you ever set out with one intention and ended up doing something else that turned out to be a more joyous or satisfying or healing experience than the original might have been?  Some of us are the ADHD- types who are too interruptible.  Others of us are too inflexible.  Today’s story tells me that Jesus probably knew what if felt like to be buffeted by all those clamoring for  help. Seems he both improvised and stayed the course.

We as a congregation have a mission statement that grounds us.  It’s written on the front of every worship bulletin and it does truly guide us in our ongoing discernment in how to be the church God is calling us to be.  But we can’t hear a Still Speaking God if we pour concrete around those words.

At last week's retreat, the church council generated three simple themes for the coming church year: growth, service, and leadership.  You’ll hear more about what these three words mean to us as Jenni leads our 6:00 discussion hour. You’ll also have a chance to share your hopes and dreams for the coming year with our new council members there to listen to you.  A clear mission or focus for a church, and for a particular year in the life of that church, is a good thing. 

But let’s stay relational more than organizational. Let’s be strategic but let’s also be at times spontaneous. Let’s remain alert enough to notice when a suffering soul pushes her way into our midst. 

I encourage you to study the issues of the day, but whatever your opinions about Obamacare—I invite you to ground yourself in Jesuscare.  It’s a healthcare plan for the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. 

Today we are blessing the work of a new church council.  But all of us are, in Jesuscare, both the healed and the healer. All of us can identify with someone in this story:  We have rushed a child to an emergency room and can feel the father’s terror.  We have depended on others for care and compassion and empathize with a sick and ostracized woman. We have overextended ourselves for the good of family or community and can imagine Jesus’s possible feelings of exhaustion and inadequacy.

Yet in this story, Jesus accomplishes the superhero feat: he saves both the woman on the seashore and the child in the village.  And somehow the story teller’s repeated details running through both stories suggest that saving one is not in conflict with saving the other. In fact, these two healings may be inextricably connected.  Jesus, for instance, seems to have Jairus’ little daughter in mind even while he addresses the hemorrhaging woman as “daughter.” Listen to Jesus’s closing cryptic words: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Did you catch that odd contradiction?  Jesus says the woman’s faith has already healed her.  And then adds, “Go . . . and be healed.” 

Maybe Jesuscare is ongoing and complex. 

Maybe the kind of healing that Jesus offers is never complete until the entire community is healed and whole. 

May it be so, O God.

Today’s gospel story ends with Jesus telling the little girl’s family to give her something to eat.  Healing is complete when we come to the Table.  Eating in that day was a communal event, often a celebratory rite.  Like a child who has been resurrected, we participate now in celebrating resurrection.  Arise!