Gloriously Diverse (January 25, 2015)

When I was growing up, all the Nativity sets I saw had fair-haired figures.  It didn’t start to bother me until I was about nine or ten, the age when I was exposed to the civil rights movement.  Why, I wondered, did Jesus have golden hair if he was born in the Near East?  I grew highly critical of European nativities, and then European religious paintings, particularly when they were clad in what was contemporary clothing for that time.  How dare Michelangelo depict God as an old white man, I wondered?

But as I grew as a person and as a Christian, I understood that I was looking at things all wrong.  I think what that helped me understand was a set of Chinese silk paintings I bought at a yard sale.  They were religious in nature, and one depicted the Holy Family.  There, with Chinese faces, dressed in traditional Chinese dress, were Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, adorned with haloes and surrounded by tiny winged Chinese angels.

And then I remembered my small creche from Mexico, with its traditional Meso-American painting, animals and figures, and my carved creche from Africa, with its native figures and animals.  Every culture looked at Jesus and the Holy Family as belonging to them.  In a way, this is good.  God is accessible.  When you are in a homogenous culture, God is inclusive.  But when you live in a modern, heterogenous culture, this can be dangerous.

The writer Anne Lamott wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” and modern culture and faith traditions have certainly used God as a way to determine who is good and who is bad.  Anyone not like you in terms of race, faith, income, ancestry, appearance, or other arbitrary factor is therefore not like God, and therefore open to neglect or mistreatment.

Since Biblical times people with disabilities have been seen as something “less.”  When Jesus was presented with a man who was born blind, the apostles asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  John 9:2   The mentally ill were “demoniacs,” who lived among the tombs. Matthew 8:28  

I love the author James McBride’s sharing of his mother’s description of God.  McBride’s father was black, his mother an Orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity.  God, she declared, is “the color of water.”  God, I believe, is also sighted, blind, hearing, deaf, able-bodied and uses a wheelchair, developmentally disabled, places on the autism spectrum and is mentally gifted.  God looks after each of us, and looks like each of us.  God has no ethnicity, and is every ethnicity.  If we truly believe we are made in God’s image, and God makes no mistakes, then God is a gloriously diverse God, with gloriously diverse discapacities, as the word translates from Spanish.  And aren’t we blessed to have such a God on our side?

Dear God, We thank you that we are fiercely and wonderfully made in your image.  Remind us that we are yours, that we are never alone, and that when we step or roll out in faith to do you work, we will be successful.  We might be just the sowers of seeds, but we trust you that they will find fertile soil and bloom.  Thank you for choosing us and using us.  In the name of Christ, the Master Gardener, Amen.

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Let It Go (January 18, 2015)

I read an article by Catherine Marshall last week about the Prayer of Relinquishment, and found it fascinating. First, she used the word “relinquishment,” not “surrender.” Second, she wrote about the benefits of relinquishing certain situations to God. Coming from a family of very independent women, I have always found it difficult to turn things over to someone else, even God.

My great-great-great-grandmother lost her husband when he disappeared driving cattle to market in 1850. She was left with two children to raise, one an infant born in a wagon in Coloma in 1849. Her granddaughter, my great-grandmother, was also widowed at a young age and ran a boarding house to keep her family afloat. Her daughter, my grandmother, ran a Western Union station on her own in Arizona when she was just 16 years old. When her husband left her, she also ran a business. When my father left my mother, my brother and I agreed we would help her keep our house by pitching in with the household and yard duties and watching our spending. Mom got a job.

I learned to do things by myself, figure things out on my own, make things rather than buy them, learn to repair them. It’s a skill I’ve always been proud of. And when I got sick, I figured I could stand on my own two feet, so to speak. I think many of us feel that way. We are strong people. We can take care of ourselves. We can go to the doctor, follow instructions, take our meds, use our assistive technology, and we’ll be just fine. We can pray for others, go to church, do what we can to help others. We can carry on “like always.”

But it really isn’t “like always.” I’ve been struggling with this. I’m not as strong as I was a year ago. It’s hard to admit that. It’s hard to even acknowledge it. And it’s useless to fight it. But it’s time to relinquish it. It’s time to ask for my own prayers, as well as praying for others. It’s time to acknowledge that God is in control, always has been, and always will be. It’s time to relinquish it to God. When I started my path to ministry, I prayed the “Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition” with my mentor:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

It, too, is a prayer of relinquishment. As I turned myself over in trust to God for ministry, so I must turn myself over in trust to God in sickness. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

Dear God, What opportunities you are giving us this winter to open hearts, minds and doors! We thank you for the conferences that are taking place, and the doors that are opening up to make all people welcome in your churches. Help us remember to place our trust in you, and to lean on you when things are difficult, just as we rejoice and give thanks to you when things go well. Thank you for always being with us, even when we think we can do it on our own. Amen.

That All May Speak (January 11, 2015)

When our children were young we lived in a resort community for a couple of years.  I was fortunate to find employment in the local school district, working in a combined 5-6 classroom.  When I was also assigned to lunch duty, I was given a crash course in American Sign Language (ASL), because our school was the designated “mainstream” school for children with disabilities.

I say “mainstream” in quotes because the children went to our school, but they were in separate classes.  They weren’t really integrated into regular classes.  But I found ASL fascinating, and loved the opportunity to learn and use it.  It wasn’t all glamour – the first phrase I learned was “Sit down now and stay there,” very useful in the cafeteria.  The second was “Go outside and play.”  But I did learn more, and because I had some modicum of ASL I got to go on field trips with the deaf and hard-of-hearing class and get to know them and interact with them.

I will never forget some my charges.  One boy came to use from the Philippines.  At that time deaf children were not educated in the Philippines, so everything was new to him.  He made up signs.  When we taught him the sign for tree, one arm held upright with the hand spread out, he invented “dead tree,” the arm crashing down 90 degrees.  When we taught him the sign for fish, he taught us a fish being caught, literally a hook in the mouth.  He would laugh with delight as we copied his new “signs.”  Then there was the darling freckle-faced little boy who always took his hearing aids out during lunch.  More than once I had to look for them in the garbage because he forgot to put them back in.  Nothing like looking for little hearing aids in a trash can full of beanie-weenies!

But I always wondered why everyone wasn’t taught ASL.  Hearing children were certainly eager to learn.  I was given the gift of Spanish beginning in the third grade.  My very wise school district grew even wiser and began teaching everyone to read, write and speak Spanish starting in Kindergarten.  Languages are so easy when we are young.  My daughter’s preschool started teaching her signs at the same time I was learning, and it was very handy that we had this form of communication, especially when we moved to our next home many miles away.  I could sign to her in the car ahead of me, and she could pass messages on to her Daddy.  Very convenient.

According to the National Institute of Health, one in eight people over the age of 12 has hearing loss in both ears.  That’s 13 percent.  Two to three of every 1,000 children are born with a detectable hearing loss in one or both ears.  More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.  I’ve always thought it was unfair that we are not taught ASL.  When I met deaf people and could “speak” with them, they were delighted to meet a hearing person who had taken the trouble to “learn their language.”

There is a movement to encourage the deaf to receive cochlear implants, but this is not the same as “hearing” as we do.  My friends who have received them report difficulties in differentiating between sounds, having their sense of taste affected, and having problems with static electricity.  But I wonder if we are encouraging the deaf to be more “like us” instead of making the effort to reach out to them by learning their language?

I think of the story in Mark where four friends carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be cured.  When they found they couldn’t bring him into the house in the usual way, they made a hole in the roof to lower him down.  If these friends could make that kind of effort, can’t we learn to use our hands, minds and hearts to speak to our deaf friends and neighbors?

“. . .but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.”  1 Thessalonians 2:4

Dear God, Help us to bridge the gaps between us.  Help us to learn to speak to each other, and listen to each other, and seek to understand each other  Remind us that we are all your children, and all perfect in your eyes.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

To the Least of These . . . (January 4, 2015)

Our local newspaper recently ran a very long article about at-risk children in our area, reporting that nearly 70 percent fall into that category.  Criteria for being at-risk included not just poverty, but lack of parental involvement in their lives, exposure to substance abuse, crime, physical abuse, homelessness, little or no access to medical care, and lack of education.  Physical and mental disabilities were not considered, but I think they should have been.  Most of us know from our own experience that disabling conditions can limit our possibilities.

As I read the article I realized that I was one of the at-risk children, although we weren’t recognized or called that when I was a child.  I heard the whispers of relatives.  I knew that I was unwanted, and was able to laugh when my father finally confirmed it when I was 18.  I grew up in an angry, alcoholic household and was actually relieved when my father left.  I was tired of the drunkenness and the cruelty, both physical and emotional.  In those days you didn’t talk about such things; you kept them secret.

But God gave me a happy heart.  I’m convinced that is what saved me, and what keeps me going now as I struggle with some depression over my physical struggles.  God and I have always had a special relationship.  I remember when I was baptized.  I was five years old, and I had a dress the color of the sky.  When the pastor told me I had a Father in Heaven who loved me forever, no matter what, I was overjoyed.  After the ceremony I went outside and looked up at the sky, and down at my dress, and it was if it were a sign – the color of my dress and the sky were a symbol that God would always be there for me, no matter how bad things were at home.

And I had two people who loved me, a great-grandfather and a great-aunt.  They thought I was special and encouraged my talents.  I only saw them a few times a year, but that time was precious.  My great-grandfather listened patiently to all my stories, and saved every letter and picture I ever sent him.  My great-aunt taught me to sew, and shared her love of genealogy and antiques and cooking with me.

And so I think of the children today.  And not just the children, but all those in need of love and support – all the “least of these.”  Everyone needs someone who will listen to them, who thinks they are special, who will encourage their gifts.  As the family of Christ I challenge each of us to reach out to the least of these, to love the unlovable, to listen to their stories and encourage their gifts.  Some of the best hugs I ever received came from a homeless woman at a former church.  Her hair was scraggly, her coat was dirty, but her eyes and heart were filled with the love of Jesus.

One of my favorite passages is Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, praising those who fed Him when He was hungry, clothed Him when He was naked, visited Him when He was sick and imprisoned, welcomed Him when He was a stranger, and gave him a drink when He was thirsty.  When asked how they did these to Jesus when they did not see Him, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Who knows what joy we will provide when we too reach out to the least of these?  And what joy we will find?  It is certain we will make changes for the better, and this is good.

Dear Lord, We are reminded that although we are made in your image, we are all broken in some manner.  Help us to reach out to others and extend your healing and loving touch.  Help them see their beauty and potential as we invite them into our fellowship.  Bless our friends who are working to include all your children in the church and in the world,  Help us all to strengthen ourselves to be effective witnesses and workers.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

It’s All Right To Cry (December 28, 2014)

“Is it all right for men to cry?” he asked me, his eyes misty, his chin trembling.

“Of course it is,” I replied.  “You’ve read the Psalms.  David wept.  Think of the shortest verse in the Bible, two words, ‘Jesus wept.’  (John 11:35 )  If Jesus cried, you can certainly cry.”

I told him how I have cried – a lot, it seems, lately – over diagnoses and pain.  No, I’m not a man but I’ve usually taken bad news in my stride and bounced right back.  I used to compare myself to the Bozo bop bag my older brother had when we were kids.  You could punch it all you wanted, but it had a weighted bottom and it would always bounce back upright, with that silly grin on its face.  That was me.  Hit me with bad news and I bounce back, same silly smile on my face.  Until lately.  I think it surprised my friend to hear that I have been crying.  He still saw me as the Bozo bop bag.

There’s something in our culture that says we’re not supposed to cry.  We’re not supposed to show that we’re hurting, or weak.  But that’s not Biblical.  It seems like we’re always reading about people tearing their clothes or wearing sackcloth.  In the New Revised Standard translation of the Bible there are 122 uses of the word weep, and 78 uses of the word wept, including Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, and, of course, Jesus.  But somehow  in our culture we’ve been led to believe that strong people don’t cry.  This is so wrong!

Crying really does make you feel better.  Scientists have found there are three types of tears:  reflex, continuous, and emotional.  Reflex tears allow your eyes to rid themselves of irritants like smoke or chemicals.  Continuous tears keep our eyes lubricated and produce a chemical called lysozyme, which functions as an antibacterial and protects our eyes from infection.  But emotional tears – those are special.  According to Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota, they contain stress hormones which are excreted through the body by the act of crying.  Those hormones and other toxins which have accumulated are eliminated.  Emotional crying also stimulates the production of endorphins, our “feel-good” hormones and natural pain killers.

Most of us have been hit, and hit hard.  It has been a diagnosis, an accident, an injury, a condition that has tried to sideline us.  Maybe it has, temporarily.  We have fought to continue on with our lives as best we can.  We have put on a strong face to the world.  And we have been taught that tears are not part of that front.  If we have cried at all, we have cried in private.  I am here to tell you that Frankie Valli had it wrong.  Big girls (and boys) do cry.  It does us a world of good; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Thank you, Lord, for the healing gift of tears, and for the examples you set for us to follow.  Remind us we need never be ashamed to weep.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen 

“This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life.”  Psalm 119:50