Saturday, March 21, 2015

I'm sorry, Bishop Kemper!

Yesterday was my final contest in Lent Madness, as Bishop Kemper lost in the second round to the very worthy Bernard Mizeki.

I feel terrible, though. Not because Kemper lost, but because I feel so many people got the wrong idea about him from what I wrote.

The second round is Quirks and Quotes, and what could be quirkier than this:
According to his biographer, “He did not care for Shakespeare, and abhorred Byron.” He did, however, enjoy the occasional novel (“particularly, it is remembered, Judge Haliburton’s ‘Sam Slick’”) and “let his children read Scott’s romances, but not too many of them at a time, fearing lest they should acquire a taste for fiction.”
And this:
Bishop Kemper “rose early, at five o’clock in summer and six in winter, and attributed his established health in large measure to his habitual morning bath in cold water, followed by the use of the flesh brush.”
Quirky, right?

But, oh, the comments! People who could never vote for someone who didn't care for Shakespeare or censored his children's reading. Who found Kemper cold, joyless, and stiff. Who called him "small-minded."

One person commented, "Voted mostly against Kemper–cold showers and dislike of Shakespeare hardly stacks up against an African martyr who comes complete with a festival where people dance for two days." Another wrote, "He sounds like a dedicated pastor of the far more austere sort. I wonder what inspired others about him–largely the sheer force of his strength of character?"

And that's where I feel I completely let Jackson Kemper down, because I've gotten to know him well in my research and what comes shining through is his warmth, kindness, and generosity.

Here's a quote from his biographer that didn't make it into the write-ups:
"He was in his element when making a round of parish visits, which he found to be an easy means of imparting religious instruction, and his tenderness and personal kindness in times of trouble, sickness, or death endeared him deeply to his people. He thoroughly enjoyed simple social visiting, and all his life was very particular about calling on strangers and returning calls. He was a generous giver to every good cause. He was exceedingly restrained in criticism of others. He had modest views of his powers and attainments, and was never satisfied with them but ever strove to improve himself. He was by no means lacking in humor of a gay and gentle kind. One of his most attractive qualities, which he never lost, was a certain boyish lightheartedness and zest for living."
That's what inspired people.

This year, when we were given the list of Lent Madness contestants to choose from, I didn't have any particular favorites and just asked for a random assortment. I received Dorcas, John Keble, and Jackson Kemper, and knew little of any of them. It's Jackson Kemper that most won my heart and affection in the course of this Lent Madness. I'm just so terribly sorry that I didn't do more to convey that this amazing man not only did a tremendous amount for the church, but did it with love.

It's been so much fun being part of Lent Madness. Thanks to Melodie Woerman of the Diocese of Kansas, Don Compier, Dean of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry, and the fabulous folks who ran the Action Jackson Kemper Facebook page. Kemper will always have a Golden Halo in my book.

Kemper Fi!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lenten disciplines in a time of turmoil

Yesterday, I celebrated at a parish that's going through a rough patch. I was planning to preach on the Transfiguration and psychedelic drugs, but I ended up giving them this list of Lenten disciplines instead. I think they might be more generally useful, and so I'm sharing them here. Please know that this list is not in any way proscriptive. If it is helpful, then use it, and if not, not. These are just some thoughts I’ve had in the past couple of days that might be useful for groups or individuals, depending on what's going on for them. Take what you need and leave the rest.

5 things to give up 
  1. Give up ascribing motives. I find that this is incredibly difficult because what we each want to know is why. Why did this happen? And that’s why it’s so tempting to try to figure out people’s motivations. It gives meaning to the story that we’re currently confused about. But for right now, all we can really determine is what did or did not happen, what was or was not done. Ascribing motives leads us to be suspect of the positive behaviors of those we disagree with (“I wonder what s/he’s really trying to get from me”), or to excuse the negative behaviors of those in our camp (“but s/he didn’t mean it”). 
  2. Give up figuring out what you or anyone else should have done or could have done. It didn’t happen. For whatever reason, whatever it is you think should have happened didn’t happen. There is no use trying to go back because whatever it is that happened is in the past. Yes, we can learn from this. But now, in the midst of the crisis, is not the best time. Let it go. Forgive yourself and others. 
  3. Give up the need to be right. Every single person is going to have a perspective on what is going on, based on personal experience, history, and the information s/he possesses. That perspective is neither more nor less right than your own. When we give up the need to be right, it helps us to listen, to recognize that this person’s perspective is valid without needing to answer, without needing to prove, without it being a springboard to our own response. 
  4. Give up anticipating the future. We don’t know what the future will hold. We don’t know what new development may appear even as soon as tomorrow. When we anticipate the future, it closes us off to other possible futures that the Holy Spirit may want to lead us into – the possibility that God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 
  5. Give up trying to fix or save. It’s such a temptation to leap in with grand gestures and solutions to everything. But at this point, fixing or saving is more about trying to reach an anticipated future or trying to correct the past. 

5 things to take on

That’s not to say that we should sit back and do nothing. There are things we can do, things we can take on for Lent. They may seem simple, but I believe they are the actions that will bring healing, trust, and community.

  1. Take on small kindnesses. One thing I learned early on in my ministry was that there was a much better chance I could be there for people when they were in the middle of a crisis if I was there for people in all of the small, day to day things. One percent of the time, they needed me to show up when something went really wrong. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they just needed me to answer their friggin’ email. What are the small kindnesses we can do to care for one another? The accretion of these small gestures, day after day, are what is going to make the difference in the long run, building the foundation of trust, support, and hope as you work together. 
  2. Take on time to pause and reflect. In the midst of temptation to do something to make things better, sometimes the best thing to do is to sit quietly, look around, and see where you are. And that may mean feeling a range of feelings: sorrow, anger, relief, grief, guilt, confusion... But I believe that it is in sitting there and feeling the feelings that the healing hand of God is allowed to enter. It’s when we show God our wounds that we are able to be healed. And that happens when we take time to actually find the parts that hurt. 
  3. Take on smiling at each other. This sounds very small, but I think there’s something important that happens when we simply look at one another and smile. Please note that I’m not saying, “Keep on smilin’!” What I’m trying to get at here is staying connected with one another with hope. You don’t need to agree about anything to acknowledge another person’s humanity and connection to you. 
  4. Take on breathing. It’s amazing how important this is and how much it helps. About a week ago, I got a “Wellness Newsletter” from our HR department. I was stressed and anxious about a ton of things I needed to do and said to myself, “I don’t have time for this ‘Wellness’ crap!” But I looked at it, and on the list of suggestions of things to do, it said, “Breathe 3 times.” Well, I figured I had time to do that. So I breathed 3 times. And then, because it felt so good, I breathed a fourth time. And I was thrown by how much difference this small thing made in how I felt about the day. So when the anxiety comes up, breathe three times. Maybe four. 
  5. Take on the mantra, “All will be well.” Julian of Norwich was a 14th Century anchoress and mystic who lived through the plague that wiped out 1/3 of the population of Europe. In the midst of this and in the midst of her own suffering, she received this word: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall all be very well.” It may be helpful to remember that in the grand scheme of things, this is all small potatoes. As you breathe, remind yourself that all will be well, and all will be well, and all things will all be well. God loves you. God will always love you. God will always be with you, no matter what. And all manner of things shall all be very well.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

World In Prayer, February 13

It was my week to write the World in Prayer prayers. The top news stories were the peace accord hammered out in Ukraine, and the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, NC. But the story that struck me was that of a group of 6 prison inmates in Taiwan who had taken some prison guards hostage and, after a 14-hour stand-off, committed suicide. 

These were not nice people, it sounds like. And yet I felt very called to pray for them. Which then moved me to pray for other people that I would much rather not pray for. And I was reminded of the great commandments, and of Jesus' words, "I was in prison and you visited me," and "Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done for me." And that led me to these prayers.

As we prepare ourselves for the holy season of Lent, let us reflect in prayer on the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: that when we love the least of these, we love you, Lord.

Help us to love the least of these in prison. We pray for prisoners throughout the world. We pray that they may receive justice, that those who are innocent may be freed and those who are guilty may be restored and reconciled. We pray especially this week for Taiwan where 6 inmates held several guards hostage before committing suicide.

Help us to love the least of these who are refugees. We pray for the souls of the 300 migrants who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. We pray too for all those who tried to rescue them, as they have done so many times over the past months and years, and help them deal with the grief and horror of the tragedy. We pray for the children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere, held in family detention camps in New Mexico, USA. We pray for all those who have been displaced from their homes.

Help us to love the least of those who seek peace. We give thanks for the ceasefire announced in Ukraine and pray that it may hold. We pray for Syria, Burkina Faso, Iraq, Afghanistan, and for countries affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, especially Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.

Help us to love the least of those of all faiths and tribes. We pray for Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad and her sister Razan who were killed this week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA by their neighbor.

Help us, O Lord, to love our neighbors as You have commanded us to do. Help us to see in them the image of the living God who has come to dwell with us. And may we be transformed when we see You before us in the face of the least of these.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

How to get Fred Rogers a spot on the Lent Madness bracket

Hello, Lent Madness global reading public! For reasons known mostly to Scott Gunn, for the past several years I've had the pleasure of being a so-called Celebrity Blogger for Lent Madness. Though I admit the title earns me nothing but mockery and eye-rolling here at home.

As a long-time follower of Lent Madness, I've seen a yearly tradition arise of petitioning the Supreme
Executive Committee to put various people on the bracket, notably Fred Rogers. The problem is that, though the SEC would love to put more people on the bracket, they have established as a baseline that the contestants of Lent Madness are limited to the people who are recognized as saints in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA). Reasonably enough.

But there is hope, Fred Rogers supporters! The liturgical calendar and our church's manner of recognizing people of faith is constantly evolving. What's more, there are definitely ways in which mere mortals such as ourselves can affect this change. I am firmly convinced that we can take steps this month to get Fred Rogers on the radar, so to speak.

Namely: Create a local commemoration of Fred Rogers for your faith community on or near the date he died, February 27!

One of the criteria given for inclusion in the Episcopal Church's calendar is local observance. I quote from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music's blog post from one year ago:
Criterion 5  Local Observance: Similarly, it should normatively be the case that significant remembrance of a particular person already exists within the Church at the local and regional levels before that person is included in the Church’s larger story.
I'm not saying the official recognition will happen this year. "Local and regional commemoration normally occurs for many years prior to national recognition," according to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Still...if we really want Fred Rogers as part of our national collection of Holy Women and Holy Men (and in Lent Madness), it's great to take that first step.

Oh, and before you party-poopers step in and say, "A person needs to be dead for 50 years before we recognize him," I point you to last year's Lent Madness finalist Harriet Bedell who died in 1969. So unless I suddenly turned 50 without my noticing it, my basic math skills would suggest that Bedell was placed on the calendar well before her required 50 were up.

And whether or not Fred Rogers ever makes it on the bracket or in our church's official commemorations, the truth is, we will still have him as a model of gentleness and compassion. And I'm sure Mr. Rogers doesn't care about a golden halo.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Voice of God

I am totally in love with this poem by Mary Karr.

The Voice of God

Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
  could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
  but we want magic, to win
the lottery we never bought a ticket for.
  (Tenderly, the monks chant, embrace
the suffering.) The voice of God does not pander,
  offers no five year plan, no long-term
solution, nary an edict. It is small & fond & local.
  Don’t look for your initials in the geese
honking overhead or to see thru the glass even
  darkly. It says the most obvious crap—
put down that gun, you need a sandwich.

 From Commonweal

Friday, January 2, 2015

Prayers for the new year

It was my turn this week to write the World In Prayer prayers. With my deadline on January 1, of course I was thinking about the new year. I realized how odd it is that we give this one arbitrary day such significance as a time of new beginnings since every day gives us that same opportunity, so I decided to write prayers that could actually be used at any time. I didn't refer to any specific world events, but certainly for me there was a lot of subtext in what I chose to focus on. But I wanted to leave them open enough for people to include whatever is on their own hearts and minds.

I fussed around quite a bit with which order to put the intercessions. It's not perfect, but then, they never are.

At any rate, here you go. 

World News This Week in Prayer

Gracious God, our lives are new every morning. Each day we are given opportunities to love you and to love the people you send to us. As we begin a new year, we use this moment to rededicate ourselves to your service and our gifts and talents towards creating your kingdom in this world.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to compassion: give us courage when we find ourselves encountering pain and suffering in others and in ourselves. Free us from judgment and self-righteousness and give us the gift of humility in all we do.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to reconciliation: let us ask for forgiveness of those we have hurt; help us, in your mercy, to do the hard work of forgiving those who have hurt us. Where there is division between individuals, races, or tribes, may we be bearers of light and understanding.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to hope: when we hear of wars that seem unending and see scars of conflict that run to the bone. In the face of natural disasters or calamities that we ourselves have made, inspire us with your hope to continue to seek your presence and your will.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to justice: to fighting against unfair and unequal laws and treatment, and to exposing systems that benefit those who have much and penalize those who have little. Give wisdom to those in authority in this and every land, and give us courage to hold our leaders accountable for their actions.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

We rededicate ourselves to peace: help us to respond to hatred with love, to anger with kindness. Fill us with your peace that we may share it wherever we go, that by our witness and our actions peace may fill the whole world.

Your kingdom come, O Lord.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, this day, this year, now and forever. All this we ask through the holy name of your son, Jesus Christ, who entered this world that the world may be saved. Through him we offer these prayers as we dedicate ourselves to you, today and always. Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas in Vallejo

This story came to me through a neighborhood email list. I asked the teacher in the email if he'd let me share the story on my blog and he said "Of course. That's the idea: to keep it growing. Please delete my name, though." 

So here, name deleted, is a report from DAP's classroom in Vallejo.

Dear Neighbors, Our Winter Auction was a great success THANKS TO ALL OF YOU! The Vallejo Heights Neighborhood Association joined our Bay Terrace group in supporting the classroom's Winter Auction this year, allowing the students to get gifts for their family and friends that they otherwise would not be able to afford. And your response was truly moving.

It was such a big event that word spread through the school, kids hanging outside the classroom just to get a glimpse of the mountain of donations that had been accumulating for the last few weeks. In fact, it caused a bit of a commotion. At the end of the day, as we all prepared for a long vacation, some of my colleagues told me that I was a great teacher; and to those with whom I am close, I confided that I was just an average teacher of curricula, but a pretty good teacher of love (thanks to my mom). And as you read on, you'll see how the love you showed by donating so generously will continue to grow for a long time to come.

Prior to the very morning of the Auction, I assumed that claiming one of the five $20 Target gift cards, or one of four $15 Best Buy cards, or maybe the digital camera would be the single most popular item in this year's Auction. Along with some extra large stuffed animals - some of which even sang and danced - and a lot of new electronic items, I think they were leading the pack. But on the morning of the Auction, I received a lovingly-used bicycle. And when it rolled into class, I knew that practically every child in that moment really wanted that bright green, slick-looking bike.

And they did. Without a doubt. Each of them wanted it. For themselves. "Give it to me" was an omnipresent sentiment... Then, out of the back of the class, I heard a student call out, "Let's give it to Javier, so he can get to school." Javier - not his real name - is one of my students, whose single mother has a work schedule that interferes with transportation to and from school. In fact, just the day before, I had asked the kids to find out if they could help Javier with rides. He was being bullied when he walked back and forth from school to his home near Kaiser Hospital (a distance of about 3 miles!). Javier is a boy of above average intellect and has great potential, if he can just overcome the obstacles which he confronts and in which he played no part in creating.

Despite the palpable lust for that bright green bike that charged the room, another voice chimed in, "Yeah! Let's give it to Javier!" Of course, I could have, but I told them that I couldn't just give it away, since it was donated to an auction in which they were supposed to buy items with money earned for good behavior. The kids knew that Javier didn't have a lot off class money, because so frequently he was absent or late. But I also told them that if Javier made a bid and no one bid any higher, he'd automatically get the bike. Since Javier was late as usual, he had heard none of this.

The auction continued after Javier's arrival with a few more items - a bath robe, scented candles, a baby blanket and bib - and I made sure to wait until he understood how it worked before I brought out the bike. Typically, the kids just yell out, "Five dollars!" "Ten dollars!" (and even "$100" for the largest gifts), with the loudest voice driving the bids. You know, an open auction. Competitive. But with thirty-three 11-year-olds. When I rolled the bike across the floor, I asked, "And what is my bid for this almost-new bright green bike," and I paused before adding, "Javier?" Surprised at being singled-out when no one else had been before, he fumbled with his meager stash of cash before making his bid, which he knew was too low to win. "Fifty dollars."

Now I was on the line, personally. Not to make this about me, it's not. It's about my precious kids... what I'm trying to teach them between integers and earthquakes and Ancient India... and it's about all of you who made such kind donations. But to continue, I wondered whether they would show me that they had learned the lesson I teach and reteach and teach again: "From Egocentrism to Altruism." I know it sounds too advanced for sixth graders; but with a little help, they come to understand it. And in this moment, I would understand whether or not I had been successful. If everyone was quiet, they were putting Javier's needs before their own desires. But if someone spoke, I would know that I had not yet reached them all.

And someone did speak. As those first vibrations of sound moved through the air, I thought that I had failed. But when they reached my ears in their fullness, I knew the students had learned how to be altruistic. "Don't say anything!" came the hushed admonition from the crowd, along with an ample chorus of "Shhh!"s, until there wasn't a sound in the room. Complete silence. "Well, Javier, it looks like you've got yourself a new bike, young man," I told him, more pleased than I've felt in a very long time. The other students cheered and surrounded him, before escorting him to his new bike and intentionally making a big deal of how awesome it was. I shed a couple of tears in class that day and Javier arrived bright and early and on time for school the very next day.

Call me crazy, but that's a holiday miracle in my book (and if you know much about 11-year-olds, probably in yours, too). And as you all can imagine, the love didn't stop growing there. One item after another was scooped up, wrapped, and taken away, until well over 100 gifts had been purchased with money earned for actively demonstrating responsibility, good citizenship and altruism. Some gifts were delivered right away, causing a few tears and a lot of hugs - I've been told - while others were stashed away to be a proud surprise.

But rather than me recounting their gratitude in my words, here are some of their own - a little cleaned-up - from thank you notes addressed,

Dear Neighbors, 

You guys are like the world's BEST neighbors! It's heart-warming that you are so sweet and caring and awesome. 

 The gifts I got made me feel like this is the best Christmas ever! 

 This is the first Christmas that I [was able to] give my mom a present... Thank you! 

 If you guys [hadn't] donated, I wouldn't have anything to give out this Christmas. I hope you have a great Winter Holiday! 

 I love that you give to people you don't know. I'm very thankful for that. 

 I feel great because I know there are still generous people in Vallejo. 

 I appreciate the fact that people I have never met before would offer so much to our class. 

 And the love just keeps growing, moving among us, being paid forward even as you read this, perhaps:

 [In addition to gifts for my family,] I got a gold-wrapped chocolate box. I gave it to a very poor family that I see a lot in the park. It made them tear up. 

 I didn't get myself anything because I want my family to be happy. That will make me happy this Christmas. 

 I think this is the sweetest and kindest thing anyone can do. Thank you very much for everything you have done. I hope we can return the favor! 

 Well, they did for me. How about you? THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS!