Thursday, May 06, 2021

Justice, Grace and Motherhood

 A Fierce Leader and Guide

This weekend is Mothers' Day. The holiday began in 1907 in the community of Grafton, West Virginia. Anna Jarvis held a memorial service at her mother's church on that day. Her mother had been well known in her life as an advocate for women's health and for the support of gatherings of women for support, community and organizing. The day quickly gained momentum, with states enacting days of commemoration and celebration of mothers in quick succession. The date and intent of celebrating mothers and their roles in life and home gained so much momentum that by 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had signed a bill creating it as a national holiday.

Use of the holiday varies across culture, and the way that mothers have been honored and remembered has evolved over the years. Anna Jarvis started a tradition of people wearing white carnations as a sign of memorial affection, which then grew to people wearing red or pink carnations celebrating living mothers and white for remembering mothers who had passed to glory.

It didn't take long for the holiday to become "monetized" and for a culture of gift giving, greeting cards and other gestures to become the norm for the day. Anna Jarvis herself was not happy with this trend, and actively campaigned for an end to the holiday's observance. What is interesting is how the observance is kept and held today across the many cultures that have embraced it over the decades.

<History lesson is done!>

Mothers' Day has entered my awareness on a number of levels this year. I am aware of the many blessings my own mother, and the mothering I have received in my life from her and others. That is something I am always thankful for as I grow older...and perhaps a bit wiser. Moving to the forefront, though, has been a realization of just how important Mothers' Day is for other people and their story and culture.

I have a friend, a woman of color, who is a child of the South. She grew up in the midst of the hard echoes of Jim Crow and her grandmother was a witness to the disassembly of the Reconstruction after the Civil War. The women in her life were the vanguard of defense for family, for work and life, for opportunity and hope...and for protection. 

As we were talking about the importance of Mothers' Day in her family, Church and community, she told me a story about how her grandmother carried a pistol in her apron. She kept that gun there for a grim purpose. She was the last line of defense for the family against people riding up onto their land in an attempt to intimidate, oppress or drive them off their land. She was the one who set the standard, kept the peace and made sure the family kept its integrity and honor.

Dispel any attempt at romanticizing this image. It is a reminder that women in my friend's community of color had to be that center of life for their families. Too often, men were absent because they were off working and sending money home from a distance. Men were the easy targets of violence. Women were the lynchpin of hope.

Mothers' Day was and is for her and her community a chance to openly lift up and claim the grace, respect and authority for a community that too often is pushed down and held apart from peace and safety, from opportunity and freedom. It is not just a day for brunch and filial affection, it is a celebration of justice and blessing.

My own mother, and my grandmothers before her and all their hosts, fought their own unique battles. One was the first female principle in a school system that did not accept women in chief administrative roles. Another was a partner in a family funeral business who managed a community's journey through grief and loss. One fought with others for equal rights to pay and employment in a system biased against spouses whose qualifications were of equal weight to their male partners.

We too often cloak with lighter sentiment the hard fought battles for justice, education, evolution of the  self and advantage to those underserved that these women who are the authors of our walk in this life have created for us.

I grew up making cards and gifts for my mother, grandmothers and mother-guides in my friend grew up mindful that it was because of these figures in hers that she and her siblings were safe and could claim a future from which her ancestors were cut off.

When we celebrate Mothers' Day this year, take some time to realize that beneath the veneer of that white or red carnation is a relationship that has been a rampart for all of us in our lives. For my friend, it is the image of a grandmother with a pistol in her apron. For me, it is of a woman with two small children defending her dissertation. For you....well....that is a picture you are painting in your heart today.

For all who have been a mentor in motherhood to us in this life. For all whom we are sought to provide for because that model is lacking. For all who fill the gap of justice and hope....let us give thanks.

Let us pray for all the mothers among us today; for our own mothers, those living and those who have passed away; for the mothers who loved us and for those who fell short of loving us fully; for all who hope to be mothers some day and for those whose hope to have children has been frustrated; for all mothers who have lost children; for all women and men who have mothered others in any way—those who have been our substitute mothers and we who have done so for those in need; for the earth that bore us and provides our sustenance. We pray this all in the name of God, our great and loving Mother. Amen.

– from Women’s Common Prayers: Our Lives Revealed, Nurtured, Celebrated (Morehouse Publishing, 2000)

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Reclaim, Exclaim, Proclaim: The Complaint

 Responding to the Other

We all have that button inside us that people outside us can push. It rests in different places within that internal landscape of the self. Each button is unique to each person, but they all have something in common. When someone does something out here in society that pushes the button inside us, we react. We react with anger. We react with resentment. We react, sometimes rage and often the result is a string of complaints shouted at the Other, at God or at the Universe in general.

The Complaint is hardly ever resolved by a response. It doesn't matter what the Other does, really. Why? Because it is not their issue. It is ours. Even as we bubble and squeak, rage and blow off steam the other is off on their way to THEIR next encounter with someone. That someone will either trigger them by pushing THEIR button, or they will continue to push buttons on people around them for the rest of the day.

Do not despair.

This is OK. It is the way of things.

Those buttons exist for a reason. They are there to keep us connected to the environment around us. They help us deal with reality, and the many ways reality and the people in it fall short of our expectations. Even at this moment, as our Thrift Shop is opening for the morning a child is throwing a tantrum. The screams and wails display that he is not getting what he wants. That complaint is being broadcast to the world. That desire for an outcome we want/hope for does not go away. It may evolve and grow over time, but at its base we are all bound to that button. When it is pressed, we react.

The challenge as a person of faith is to understand that while the button may not be pretty, desirable or healthy for us and those closest to us they continue to exist. Even the best human being in the world has to deal with the buttons that they developed over their lifetime. It should come as no surprise that the holiest, finest humans I have ever known harbored their personal resentments, angers, etc.

What matters is how they choose to deal with them. The truth is that the buttons which set us off all too often are exposed because of our own traits, habits and behaviors that sit on the surface because of constant use. My own, rage over the impolite actions of others on the roadways (among other places), sits at the surface because I myself spend too much time NOT BEING CARING OR AWARE of the others around me.

In my better moments, I am able to touch that truth and repent and grow. I might even apologize to the Others around me, to God and to the Universe. In my worst moments, I carry my head of steaming complaints into the rest of my day, making myself and everyone around me miserable. It is then that I am sure God laments and desires that I cease to add to the toxins of the mix of humanity I swim in. It would be better to stop, take a breath and become an agent that helps with the necessary detox we all know the world needs...and that must needs begin with us.

I conclude with this hope: that when the Complaint arises for you....or when you see it rising in another today....that you will slow down and pause, breathe and pray. Take your finger off your button. Better yet, take your finger off the button of the Other. In that moment, then, we can begin to live more fully in outdoing one another in honor, in love and in relationship to God and our neighbors.   

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Grafted to Life in Christ

 Can the Vine Give Life to Something Considered Dead?

In the Book of Acts, an angel tells the apostle Philip to get up and go to a place in the wilderness outside of Gaza. He is to journey to a place on the road. What he finds is a man of station and office, sitting in the heat of the day under the shade of his cloak in the chariot his patron has supplied him for the trip. The man shows his wealth. There are attendants. There are ornamental robes. The trappings of wealth and privilege adorn him.

The man is dead.

He is still animate, mind you. He lives, breathes and thinks. He feels, hopes and dreams. He has power, connections and relationships. 

He is still dead.

The man is a eunuch.

For all the wealth and power he has in this life, and in the position of honor he holds under his queen, the Candace of Ethiopia, he is without issue. There will be no one to carry on his name. There will be no one to whom he can look in his old age and say, "There is my progeny, my legacy." When he dies, his name will die. In ancient times, this was a true death. It meant a death of name, of memory, of blood. His life is only in this moment, in this day. Everything else is loss.

That made him a good servant. A ruler could trust that a eunuch would at worst take what they might desire....but they could not consider stealing more than they would consume for others. There were no others. A eunuch was cut off from all connections beyond their own needs.

This is the man Philip comes across. The eunuch is not even given a name in the scriptures. He is only what he is.

What he has, though, will define this exchange. The eunuch is reading from a scroll he obtained in Jerusalem. It is from the writings of the prophet, Isaiah. Particularly, he is puzzling over the servant songs from the teachings. He and the apostle exchange words. The scriptures are exhibited and the eunuch expresses wonder at whom the prophet is speaking of, this servant who suffers for others.

Philip does something we don't expect, and yet hope for: he preaches the good news to a man who is dead. The word of life in Christ is hope for all, but is it hope for one so cut off from this life? What is the promise of the next to someone like this?

All of this is summed up in one question: "Here is some water," by the side of the road. "What is to prevent me from being baptized, now?"

The answer is nothing...and everything. 

We, as the church, are continually confronted with the eunuch's query. What is to prevent us from being Christ to someone in any given moment? What is the barrier to being radically available to ALL, and ANY in the name of Jesus? 

That which prevents us is our own reticence. It is our own certainty that we know what an outcome must be for people like the eunuch. We buy into the world's projections and expectations. We withhold blessings because of rules that are in place to make us mindful. There are so many times when we are given the opportunity to be like the vine dresser and graft what appears to be a dead branch of a person to the living Vine of the Messiah, Jesus. Why not be like Philip?

In a puddle by the side of a wilderness road, he took a dead man and with a bit of water, the Holy Spirit and the words of the prophet Isaiah echoing in the dust was able to raise a child of God to a new life in Christ.

May we all be willing to do the same as we care for each other....and the eunuchs of this age....with that same living word and water.

That is what it means to be grafted into new life in Christ, to the true vine.