Mary Knew the Risks of #MeToo

Mary gave consent. So Mary does not need to say #MeToo, at least not about the incident for which we all know her. When the angel of the Lord announces the plan for Mary to carry within her and birth Emmanuel, she questions, but ultimately agrees.

Yet #MeToo is not just about sexual harassment or assault. It is about escaping the silence, exposing how widespread and suffocating the risk of sexual violence is. It is about how those with power over you can ruin you without a thought, thus so many of your thoughts must be consumed with keeping yourself safe. It is about the implications of speaking up, that have kept so many silent for so long. Some might claim they had no idea, until a tsunami of #MeToo flooded their social media. Mary knew these risks, all the reasons we keep silent.

She had to know that no one would believe her. Mary said yes, and later with her cousin Elizabeth even sang a hymn of praise for a pregnancy she would not be able to explain except to say that it was from God. Joseph would not believe her, until a messenger of God visited him privately in a dream. Mary’s word was not enough. She had to know it would not be. The “man in her life” was surely not the only one concerned for her; yet no one else is recorded to have any heavenly messengers visit. Was Mary’s word enough for her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors? Or did they always thereafter remember this about her: that the time line did not quite check out for her marriage and pregnancy. Was there a persistent inkling in their heads when her son Jesus preached for the first time in Nazareth (Luke 4:22), telling them that the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was being fulfilled in their hearing? They asked each other: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” but maybe it was also a subtle slur, because there was always some discrepancy about Joseph’s paternity.

Mary had to know that there were implications for her reputation, and this must not be made to sound frivolous. To be pregnant, let alone young and unmarried could mean being publicly disgraced, or fading into oblivion as all her people abandoned her. Whether pregnancy results or not, many who are now publicly saying “Me too” have to weigh the implications of going public for how this will affect their futures: family, work prospects, public persona, reputation.

The greatest risk for Mary was not what other people could think of or do to her. It was the emotional burden of birthing a child into a world that neither recognizes nor welcomes God. It sounds wonderful when the Angel Gabriel says, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” (Luke 1:32). But when humans – who are in touch with God – speak the truth over the infant 8 days old, it is a different story. The aged Simeon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34). How does one give birth to soul-piercing tragedy in a child, and not be crushed to pieces by the sadness of anticipation? Yet Mary recognizes in this act that God is reversing all structures of power, and sings the Magnificat. The greatest reversal must be that staying silent is a greater risk to her soul than anything that can be done to her body.

Almighty God chose vulnerability, by entering the world as a helpless infant. But this great vulnerability was only possible because Mary took on much greater risk, recognized God at work in it, and even rejoiced at being part of it! This is crucial foreshadowing for Christians who would wish to bear God’s redeeming presence into the world. We will not be able to do so without great personal risk. Safe evangelism, expressing or giving out of our abundance (after we have all we want) nets few results. When we are not concerned about losses we might incur, then there is just not much at stake, and the message falls flat. What does it mean that our God only enters into the world at the risk of ruining the lives of those who bear his presence? It means the reversals will be extreme – even to the point of death turning into new life.

This post was re-published by Red Letter Christians on January, 3, 2018. The graphic is the one used by them.

Light & darkness, grace and truth

It took me awhile to figure out why it made me feel so uncomfortable. Three words, a title on the cover of an organization’s seasonal magazine: “Delivered From Darkness.” For years I’ve sponsored a child in school in Kenya, through this Christian organization. They do faithful, effective work, even though they are not my personal flavor of Christianity; my husband and I have even visited two of the sites of their programs. But that headline, which referred to the story of an African child the organization had effectively gotten out of the custody of a voodoo shrine, that headline made my skin crawl. It was as if someone had turned on a light with a dimmer switch, just one notch, so I could make out the shadows, but not see the whole room. Something felt wrong, but I couldn’t see clearly why.

I came to the adult Bible Study here in mid-November, wielding that magazine along with a commentary from the Disrupt Worship Project that warned about all the light and darkness imagery in Isaiah 9, our text that week, and coming up in Advent. Such as “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” If we were reading these verses in Hebrew or Greek, it would be clear that we are talking about brightness or illumination and a lack thereof. But we’re hearing them in English, where they are the same words we use for skin tone: light skin, dark skin. The associations in our brains between the dark side and evil and light as good are significant. Stars Wars, anyone? Unpacking these words matters, since the original sin upon which the prosperity of our nation was built and from which we are still reeling was slavery according to skin tone.

That was it. That’s why that headline felt so wrong to me. It was a primarily white organization based in Colorado Springs, reporting on going into “dark” Africa to rescue a child. It was outright emphasizing that light was good and dark was bad, in symbols and in race and culture.

Yet we cannot address it if we can’t talk about it. This week I heard Marlon James, a Jamaican-born writer and professor at Macalester College, talking on MPR about the 6 month anniversary of the “not guilty” verdict in the case against Geronimo Yanez, the police officer who killed Philando Castile, near the state fairgrounds in the summer of 2015. Professor James lamented that people insist on seeing themselves as “good people;” so we only want to see racism as a malicious problem. If I’m not a malicious – intentionally harmful – racist, then I’m not one at all. There are malicious racists, of course, and now they think it’s fine to be public about that. But if at base level racism is a systemic problem, then even those who think we are not can talk about or have pointed out to us how we are contributing to the problem at any given time, without becoming horribly defensive about it. Because we are part of the system, and we can’t see clearly to change anything unless someone turns the light on.

Maybe our refusal to recognize systemic problems comes from that core value of American individualism. The individual has the power to make her own story, chart her own course, pull herself up by her own bootstraps and make something of herself! Yet just making those pronouns female made my heart ache at the sadness of how circumstances can be stacked against girls and women, without tons of allies and support people fighting the systems with us. We might be a nation of individuals striving, but we have some systemic problems.

The first step is to see clearly what we are doing.

Only then can we also see clearly what God is doing: bringing grace and truth. Grace upon grace. Through seeing clearly.

God came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. There’s some systemic sin. But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of anything human but of God. He changed the boundaries for belonging to each other and to God’s family. God called out all the things we think make for belonging. Or maybe he just illuminated what was always true but we couldn’t understand until God physically did it Godself.
(God speaking now) Look. I’ll come into your messed up, hidden devious systems. I’ll take a mirror to your imagery and words and insinuations, just by showing up. I am here. And I choose you to be my closest kin. And the one who oppresses you. And the one you have been keeping down, unwittingly or intentionally. Now maybe you are not impressed by any club that would have you as a member, but the lights are on, so notice with clarity: I am becoming one of you, to embrace you all, together.
Can we see that clearly? None of us is any more of a “good person” than the others, but everybody is dragging our baggage into this family. Relationships require truth-telling, confession, forgiveness, and grace upon grace.
The grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Unconditional love upon unconditional love. The poetry of John 1 specifically de-bunks any entitlement or inheritance ideas we might have about belonging in God’s family. We didn’t get here by “the will of the flesh” or the “will of man”. It’s not our parents’ will or our own will or anybody else’s will, but God’s will that makes us children of God. God chooses (God knows why) to adopt us:

Knowing that we tend to stumble around with only the dimmest source of light most of the time.
Knowing that we are afraid of the full brightness showing who we really are, or the space that we prefer to keep between us and other people.
In that hostile environment God chooses to establish a new family.

And God does it, not in the way I tend to quell arguments between our kids, just stopping it by force: “No more. No more arguing, no more crying. Or there will be no Netflix!” No, God doesn’t shut down the conflicts by force or threats and make us be a family. God instead chooses to enter this family as a dependent, vulnerable, and at risk child, because of all the systems rigged against him. That is to say, God’s love is so unconditional that God chose not to protect his only begotten child from us, but to put him at our mercy.

As we wrap up Advent, let us have ourselves a real Christmas, full of grace and truth like the Word Made Flesh – one where we can see ourselves and our neighbors clearly, as God does, and still love unconditionally.

A Writer Writes

If you wait for inspiration to write, you are a waiter, not a writer. Among many other things I learned from Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life during my junior year of high school, this one has stuck with me. I know I am a writer, and was drawn to preaching because I can both write and speak compellingly about the love of God.

Since joining The Young Clergy Women Project (now called Young Clergy Women International) in 2014 when the convention was held in Minneapolis and I was about to go on leave from call, I have seen writing a book as what is next for me. YCWI has a connection with Chalice Press, a small, progressive publisher that wants to change the world through books that give a progressive take on subjects that are perhaps more loudly discussed by conservative Christians.

What is my expertise for such a book? I wondered. I had been a mother for two to three years or so, when I came up for air after our youngest’s demanding first year of life and was ready to attempt it. Since we adopted first, and I am a voracious reader, I had been looking yet found quite a vacuum of helpful, progressive theology about adoption available in book form. I organized myself, made a letter of inquiry, was invited to make a full proposal for a book on “adoptheology,” and got a very positive rejection.

We usually reject proposals based on quality of writing or relevance of content, however this is not the case. While there is a case to be made that everyone in the world should buy this book, we believe a niche market would actually buy it, and doubt our ability to market it to financial viability. We suggest sharing the content via articles or in blog form. (paraphrase)

So, that is what I have done (see my list of publications). But I was still stuck on the subject, and hatched the idea of folding it into a broader concept about the “our church is a family” metaphor many, many churches seem to use, for good and for ill. I’d include all the subjects my clergy peers lament insensitivity about, like: how to include families whose members have behavioral issues without alienating them; how to openly talk about and do solid theology with families who separate or divorce, find faith language for multi-racial, multi-ethnic families that would guide our churches too, etc etc.
My basic push was that not just church leaders, but lay Christians as a whole can and must do better theology in practice, and I would sneakily use the metaphor they already use about themselves to convince them to better embrace those who have not experienced belonging. Heh heh heh.

After writing an article on “Preaching Adoption” for Working Preacher, for which our pastor’s spouse is the content editor, he and I launched a series of articles for preachers to talk about all kinds of “lived experiences” that we don’t talk about theologically nearly enough, which creatively fed my new book proposal.

Before working up a proposal on this expanded version of a book, I gave myself a timeline for building up “clips” or credits for online articles, and reached out to all the contacts I could think of, and all the subjects I can speak on authoritatively. A workshop at the Collegeville Institute certainly helped me grow in understanding on those things.

This fall, when my pile of credits had grown sufficiently, I heard that another publisher was looking for book proposals for “Theology for the People.” Since I think the “church family” is a concept that mostly lay people need to unpack themselves, I believed my book proposal fit the bill.

The acquisitions editor was really gracious. She even invited me to think about how it could be broadened to not just about the congregation. But it was clear that my subject was the church. The board of this imprint at the publisher feels strongly that only church professionals read books about the church. Lay people who are not employed by the church read books that help them lead more meaningful lives. This threw me for a bit of a loop, but slowly it has sunk in. I can’t make people read a book in which I am trying to convince them to care about practicing better theology and love towards their neighbor. A book is not like a sermon, where you give them what you think they need, given the Scripture, then deal with the fall-out or lack of response. People are only going to buy and actually read a book that promises some kind of self-improvement that they already want to achieve, or to speak to their situation in ways they didn’t know how to express on their own.

The acquisitions editor sent my proposal on to her colleague who handles books for church professionals, but I never heard from them. Shortly thereafter I read the “Fall Books” issue of Christian Century magazine, noticed,  and got myself a copy of the newly-released book Adopted: A Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World. Written by a progressive Christian who is both an adult adoptee and an adoptive mother in a cross-racial adoption, I am loving it so far. She definitely should have written this book, more than me, and it encompasses helping the church to identify as an adoptive family, without it being about the church.

Driving to have coffee with a colleague, I had an idea for an article: “Theology for Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.” I mentioned it and he immediately said, “I’d read that and share it like crazy!” Last week I sat down to write that article, and wrote a different one instead, “Breastfeeding God,” which I sent to Red Letter Christians, an outlet another colleague suggested. But RLC does republish blogposts, so I put it on my blog and it has generated the most traffic of anything I have written yet (over 400 separate visitors in 3 days). It is resonating with people who don’t even go to church.

Why did I think I needed to write to the church or about the church when I am pretty frustrated by it? I am pleased to be at home with my kids and writing, and just doing occasional fill-in preaching or teaching in congregations. I do not need to justify my ordination or decade of ordained leadership by writing within the constraints of the same stagnation and incremental improvement I left. I am grateful for the authority that credential and experience gives me. But I have other expertise too, as a trained writer, as a person trained to think theologically, as a parent – both through adoption and birth, and as an involved community member in a diverse neighborhood.

I have a new angle, a new direction for a book proposal, and feel really excited about it! Meanwhile I’ll keep writing. And perhaps the third time will be the charm.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Sometimes this sounds like a promise; sometimes a threat.

Our younger child has strong feelings about nearly everything and might just be the most determined person I know, except for her father. These are not just signs of her particular age, but seem to be enduring qualities, given the family resemblances. I must say, qualities I admired in the adult I chose to marry feel quite differently coming from the pre-schooler I am trying to parent!

It is the kind of payback that makes grandparents smirk and wait expectantly for thanks and apologies for their adult children. Current parents of young children hopefully click on articles about the newest research study saying stubborn children could do really well in school someday. Someday is a long way off when I just want the child to get in her car seat in the next 15 minutes (oh yes, I have to plan that buffer into our schedule).

I wonder how God feels when the family resemblances crop up, and we resemble not obedient children, but children acting like our divine Parent? We are made in God’s image, but certainly must push that to the edge of chagrin for Our Mother/Father God sometimes.

Like our Parent, we live as if our agenda is righteous, simply because it is ours. This works – to some extent – for God because it is clear that God created more, knows more, and can do more than us. See the Lord putting Job in line, responding to but not answering Job’s concerns with “Are you God?”

Job says, “The Almighty – we cannot find him; he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate. Therefore mortals fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own deceit.” (Job 37: 23-24, NRSV)

The Lord does not appreciate Job’s lip. Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And the “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38: 2, 4 NRSV)

I say something more like, “Are you the Mama? No, I’m the Mama, so it’s my decision.” But, you know, same kind of non-answer. I know more, but I see you asserting your autonomy, independent human being created in my image.

One reason I believe that God “gets” parenting is that God actually seems to change the divine mind occasionally. Being changed by love for someone else need not be a sign of weakness, or being wrong to begin with. Justice and mercy are not objective concepts, but borne out as we interact with each other. I think of Abraham negotiating with the Lord to spare Sodom if there can be found only ten righteous in the city (Genesis 18: 20-33). Half of my life as a parent is spent negotiating. The children are, after all, asserting their ability to care, be determined, and to affect outcomes. And if I want them to become responsible adults (not to mention if I ever want to get anywhere on time ever) I have to somewhat engage in the push-pull of negotiation.

But does the Lord God ever get to the point of being corrected by the children? My husband and I do occasionally, usually for using a word we have taught them is bad, such as “stupid”. We apologize and affirm that they are right, we should not say such things. As they grow up, I imagine the mistakes they call us on will become bigger, as our apologies will need to be. I am having trouble coming up with a time that the Parent person of the Trinity does this in Scripture, but I sure know when Jesus does.

A Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. First, he ignores her. Nevertheless, she persists. When she becomes so disruptive that Jesus’ male disciples ask him to do something about her, Jesus tells her that the children’s food should not be thrown to the dogs. She repeats his own word back to him so he can hear it: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15: 27) Hearing that he had used that word to dehumanize a grieving mother seems to be a wake-up call for Jesus. He doesn’t exactly apologize, but praises her faith (admitting that she too is included in the family of faith although she is not one of the lost children of Israel) and gives her what she is requesting. That feels like a parenting win for God the Parent, because Jesus did not grow into a person who just repeats religion by rote, but one who can recognize his own flaws and worthy correction. Perhaps, just like his Holy Parent?

Breastfeeding God

We can assume that Jesus was a breastfed baby; after all, he survived. Before the human-made miracle of baby formula and without access to a potential wet nurse, breastfeeding was the only option. So that first Christmas (which I seriously doubt was a silent night) certainly included Mary breastfeeding her baby, Jesus. Even being the firstborn son of God did not change that. From the moment he entered the world, Emmanuel (“God with us”) needed Mary’s milk to live.

Women are often painted as a weak or defenseless sex, but those who know actual women recognize that as a blatant lie. She who has the power to incubate human life, push it out of her body and fiercely protect it while guiding it through the world is more powerful than we can even fathom. God incarnate was born to this woman, deceptively labeled by most of society in her time and ours as vulnerable, yet immensely powerful nonetheless. God in Jesus would get used to being mis-characterized, stereotyped and potentially shamed just for being who he was, from the moment he first nursed at his mother’s breast. Yet while political maneuvering and the fate of all creation hung in the balance, Mary was Jesus’ whole world. Her breasts flowed with life and sustained his life.

Jesus was dependent on his mother’s responsiveness to his needs, but also on the power of human instinct. After giving birth, one strategy for beginning breastfeeding is to place the newborn on her mother’s abdomen a little bit away from the breast, then let her scramble-crawl to the breast to latch herself. It is astounding, but they can do this. Newborns minutes old with no command of their muscles follow the scent and their instincts to the source of life. Maybe Jesus did this too. Although his life would be guided by faith that we do not live by human food alone, the scramble to mother for first food is innate.

Colostrum is a symbol of that essential reality. The first milk after the birth of a child – colostrum – is made of different stuff than the breast milk that comes later. It is protective, immunizing, irreplaceable. Even mothers who know they will not be breast-feeding long-term are encouraged to try for the sake of that first food which their infants can get no other way. Colostrum also has a mild laxative effect, so the newborn human can perform that essential organic function: producing their first stool. In this, even God the Heavenly Father cannot supply what Mary can: antibodies and the blessed ability to poop.

Even when the baby latches well and breastfeeding seems to go smoothly, it is alarmingly frequent. Tiny newborn stomachs can’t hold much at once and their miniscule but mighty sucking power wears out quickly. But everyone is worn out after the miracle of birth, the pain, soreness and swelling; so (except for the potential interruption of shepherds) everyone should be able to claim some unconscious time from pure exhaustion that first night. Maybe that is when the “Silent Night” lyrics can be hummed.

Then comes a fresh challenge – for us it was on the second night – of cluster feeding. It felt as if our daughter awoke, instantly furious, every twenty minutes that night. I was so grateful that we were still at the hospital so I could ask the nurses, in my sleep-deprived delirium, what in the world was happening with my baby. There was nothing wrong with her. She was doing her part to bring in my milk supply. That “helpless” newborn nurtured her own food supply by demanding frequent feeding. The oxytocin hormone released from all that breastfeeding sustained me through so many sleepless nights and bonded us despite the exhaustion. Did Jesus “cluster feed”? Could he generate love in his mother through repeated demands on her body? Every child attempts to do so; why not God?

While God in the person of Jesus was embodying the instinct and dependency of being fully human, perhaps God the Father/Creator was experiencing what it also is to be the non-birthing parent. Whether as an adoptive parent or partner to the birthing mother, the limited influence and helplessness of the One Without Milk looms large. And it lasts for awhile. My husband claims that our daughter head-butted him within her first hour of life, so upset was she at discovering (while being held skin-to-skin) that he did not have the breasts of milk. I believe him; her determination is legendary. The Milkless One can certainly provide and care for the breastfeeding child in other ways, but they are often confronted with their lack of ability to meet that essential need. The bonding and attachment must be more intentional, repetitious, and insistent in the face of preference for the other. If that is not a metaphor for the dance of faith, I don’t know what is. Yet God chose to know that helplessness intimately, when Jesus was born of a human mother, laid at her life-giving breasts.

This post was re-published on Red Letter Christians on December 27, 2017.

The Happy Baby

Holding onto our feet, we rolled from side to side on our backs, following lots of back-bending and twisting. “Everybody loves a ‘happy baby’!” quipped the yoga instructor. That is what this move is called, but my train of thought derailed at that point and I started pondering: “Yes, why do so many people prefer babies to older kids?” This is certainly the case in the adoption world. For many prospective adoptive families, the younger the children the better. And to me as a pastor, the parallels to integrating into a “church family” and our preference for “happy babies” are striking.

With infants, adopted or birthed, parents have the optimal opportunity to imprint on them our own habits and behaviors as the standard for “normal”. We are the ones establishing the patterns that the synapses in their little brains recognize as familiar, both cognitively and emotionally. Attachment forms just by meeting their basic needs, without needing to debunk their previous experiences of broken trust. It’s easier to make them fit into our family – easier for them, easier for us – even though infants certainly run the show for awhile just by crying.

In mainline Protestant congregations, we love “happy baby” baptisms. Children of the congregation as our new members fit so seamlessly into who we already know ourselves to be as a “church family,” if only there would be enough of them. We imprint upon them the right way to worship, participate in education, volunteer, and take part in the umpteenth annual _______ supper, and they believe this is how church is and ever shall be. They do not enter the family agitating to change it, or challenging our ideas of who we are and what is most important to us.

In our adoption process, my spouse and I knew that older children are harder to place, so decided we would be open to children up to age 6, setting that limit largely for ease of language acquisition (since we were adopting internationally) and for the child to start school at the same age as their peers. Those were our parameters to make it easier on the child, but also if we’re honest, to make the transition easier on ourselves. They have a better chance of blending in, catching up, and assimilating. As one parent said in a support group we were a part of, “We knew we were signing up to be a conspicuous adoptive family, but we didn’t know we were also becoming a ‘special needs’ family.” Some of those invisible needs that are never going to show up in the paperwork manifest later as behavioral, emotional, or cognitive challenges. Older children come with more history, and if they are in the care of the state, that likely entails neglect or abuse. The older they are, the more aware children might be of the emotional trauma of the whole story that led to them being available for adoption.

So it is with those who come to faith, or to our specific congregation, from a different denominational background or church culture. They might be joining our church family because they have suffered neglect or some form of abuse in another church or tradition. They may be coming to faith for the first time because of things that have happened in their lives and likely a relationship that showed them some love. If any of these is the case, I hope we are attentive enough to recognize that this is not going to be easy on any of us, and the whole family might change as a result. I hope we create the space for our newer family members to process what they’ve been through, and safe space to tell us how what we do might be in a code they don’t understand or otherwise exclusionary. New members could be mirrors leading to self-awareness and renewal for our church family. But assimilation needs to be set aside as a goal, overpowered by the new standard of actively cultivating belonging for everyone. Resembling each other, except in sharing the love of Christ, is not a defining feature of the family Jesus created. Neither is fitting in without friction, or requiring no adaptation by anyone else.

A “happy baby” is not the goal for church families, although it is a nice massage for the lower back.

Posted where?

Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on the outside of the church door to initiate debate.

Dr. Corrine Carvahlo, a speaker at the Joint Ministerium (gathering of pastors and deacons from both metro synods of our church body) this morning noted that detail about this day 500 years ago which sparked the Reformation. It struck me because I have shared a self-deprecating description of myself many times: I am almost never the one in a meeting with the brilliant idea that defines the direction we should go. But I am sometimes the one who says the thing that someone else springboards off of to frame the right direction. I excel at the meeting alley-up! In any time, how are we to know what must be done, without others chiming in to hone or even take our ideas for reform in a new direction? And clearly, when we’re talking about the ongoing need for reform of the Church, the folks we most need to hear are those with a view of the outside of the door. Dr. Carvahlo went on to talk about Millenials not as “Nones” and all that implies, but as potential “Reformers,” from the outside. The discrepancy between the good news of God’s unconditional love for the world, and how the people who claim to know that behave, is vast. If we want to keep moving more fully into witnessing God’s presence in the world, then we have to initiate debate on how we can change. In this debate, no single one of us holds the truth of how we will get to the most fruitful outcome, but somehow we will discover it in the process of talking it out together.