Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Are we ready?

On Saturday, May 21, the supposed “End of the World,” I watched a homeless man, probably no older than I am, get arrested on the corner of 18th and Chestnut in Center City Philadelphia by plain-clothes police officers. I had passed this young man probably only 20-30 minutes earlier on my way to put more money in my parking meter. He sat on the sidewalk quietly and peaceably holding a sign telling passersby that he is homeless. On my way back, from a distance I noticed two other men dressed plainly, but with an air of authority speaking to this man. As I got closer, I saw his hands bound by handcuffs. I passed them, disturbed, thoughts of “what should I do here?” running through my mind. Should I approach and ask what this man was being arrested for? Should I challenge these men of authority? What would happen? Would it do any good at all? Instead, I walked a little farther away and watched feeling dismayed, helpless, and incredibly guilty. Don’t I want to be and claim to be an advocate for the voiceless, marginalized, and oppressed? How could I just stand there, watching injustice happen and do nothing? After they took him away, I walked farther down the street and stopped to talk to another homeless man on the street. I told him about what I just saw and asked if he knew anything about it. He told me that it happens a lot, people who are homeless often get arrested just for sitting on the sidewalk. “Sometimes businesses call them into the police because they feel like it isn’t good for business.” I can imagine. Customers seeing homelessness right outside the name-brand stores they enter to spend money on things they probably don’t need is definitely not good for the free market.

During the last month, I have been taking a class on the New Testament book of Acts with a group called the Alternative Seminary. The Alternative Seminary is affiliated with a nonprofit advocacy group called Project H.O.M.E. that offers services, housing, and a voice to the homeless of Philadelphia. These last two weeks, these partner organizations have been calling their friends to political advocacy for the homeless in Philadelphia. New legislation is being written specifically to target the homeless who sit peaceable on sidewalks and in parks in Center City Philadelphia and enable the police to cite and arrest anyone homeless on the streets. The bill essentially makes homelessness a crime and I watched an arrest happen last weekend even without the legislation passed that makes it legal. Project H.O.M.E. is calling friends and neighbors to fight this bill and I thank God that the Spirit is moving in people who will stand against injustice that is so against the teachings of Jesus.

I sat in my class tonight among people, like me, committed to living lives of simplicity, compassion, and justice. I live with a community of women and surround myself with friends who are advocates for a simpler lifestyle that works against these oppressive systems of capitalism, individualism, and greed. These are the values I hold and things I so strongly believe in. Poverty is a system of injustice and violence inflicted upon people by greed, neglect, and by political and economic systems of power. I watched it in action. And I know, beyond any doubt that these systems are corrupt, oppressive, and entirely against the upside-down kingdom of God that Jesus preached about in which the meek inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor and the peacemakers are called children of God. But tonight, one of my classmates asked a question that completely shook and disturbed us all to the point that we ended the evening praying, “Thank you, God, for disturbing us.” When we preach the good news of Jesus, of a God who offers refuge and justice to the poor, who calls us to live simply and care for the poor and give voice to the voiceless, who summons us to love our neighbors and live counter-culturally to the powers of this world; when we preach this good news, call others to follow and they do, when these systems eventually come down (and I believe they will come down), then what? THEN WHAT? The questions are no longer, “are these systems corrupt and oppressive?” and “is the spirit of God calling us to work against them?” We know they are and that He is. The question is, are we prepared enter the likely painful process of picking up the pieces after we’ve broken them and work to create something that is “of one accord” with the Kingdom?

That is a really scary prospect that requires a great amount of faith in a God that desires redemption and transformation. When the capitalism system, the biggest, most powerful, and one of the most oppressive systems of our present world, crashes, the effect will probably be that people will lose jobs and we will have to find new solutions to living with and among each other. The world will be completely turned upside-down, “destroyed” if you will, broken and in a state of confusion as it was in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and in Acts 19:23-41 when rioting was the effect of Paul’s disrupting of the market with the power of the gospel. What if the “fires of destruction” predicted in end times theology are the people of God in the Spirit of God bringing down the powers of injustice and oppression that dominate our world? What if the New Jerusalem is not something God just waves his magic wand and “poof!” there it is, but something that we work to bring to life from the ashes?

I believe in a God of love, grace, redemption, and transformation because I have experienced all of those things in my own life. But to experience them, I needed to be broken first. To experience love, I needed to feel loss. To experience grace, I needed to be humbled. To experience redemption, I needed to feel deep responsibility and remorse. To experience transformation, I needed to die to myself. So now, I ask myself what I ask all people of faith, when we move with the Spirit of God and break the yokes of oppression, are we willing and ready to pick up the pieces, keep trusting and listening to the Spirit, and creatively care for our neighbors and our enemies who have fallen?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Then a woman said, "Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow."

And he answered: Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."

But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

This was my mantra during Mission Year as I learned how to hold true sorrow and joy for the first time in my life. Lately, this passage has returned to my heart as the spring time has brought warm weather and the desire to be outside. As I have intentionally lingered in conversation with neighbors and walked the broken streets of Camden, I have felt a deep sense of "the selfsame well" that holds both laughter and tears. The injustice, oppression, violence, classism, and racism that plagues my city, digs a deep well of sorrow within me, but somehow, I feel nearer to God in this place than anywhere else. In faces, in places, in small ways that people cling to hope I see the spirit of God transforming and redeeming what years of injustice has worn down, broken, and abandoned. Camden teaches me to hold my joy and sorrow together, not as opposites, but as companions. I read through Psalms today in the hopes to find God's love for Camden and all her troubles. I prayed for her and held her in my heart and fell on this verse, "But as for me, it is good to be near God."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Deeper Self

What do I want? I ask myself that question almost daily. In the book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, the author says that women have dual natures.

“If one overlooks a woman’s dual nature and takes a woman at face value, one is in for a big surprise, for when the woman’s wildish nature rises from her depths and begins to assert itself, she often has interests, feelings, and ideas which are quite different from those she expressed before.”

The author also says that the one brave enough to try and untangle those two natures and accept both as the beauty of a woman will learn to as two questions, “What do you want?” and “What does your deeper self desire?” The desire to ask those questions regularly, to know the true name of a woman, and the courage to stick around long enough to uncover her is a grace taken on by the one who truly desires to be her mate with his/her own wildish, untamed nature. But the search for the untamed nature is more than just a search for a mate; it is the search for self. How can we know the heart of another if we don’t know the depths of our own?

A friend once remarked that I am on a “never-ending quest to find Stevie.” I didn’t quite know how to take that from him because he said it kind of sarcastically. But honestly, I don’t see what could be bad about that. Too many people stop searching; stop trying to understand themselves, their brokenness, their darkness, their pain, their deepest sense of fulfillment and joy, their dignity, their love or why they have such a hard time loving. Who was it that said, “An unexamined life is not worth living?”

Another friend said to me last year, “Live, don’t just let life happen to you.” I wonder how many people walk around believing that they are living because they have a five-year plan for their lives or because they do a lot that makes them happy in an attempt to forget a lot of their life that has been unhappy. I know a lot of people like that and most of the time, I don’t know how to have relationship with them once my heart has moved past the quips and surface conversation if they don’t find an openness within to move past those things with me. Because all of a sudden, I want to know what makes them tick. I want to ask deep, serious questions that are often uncomfortable. I want to help awaken others to their deepest sense of conscious, knowing that it is one of the most frightening and painful places to go and few go there willingly. But also knowing, that so much of my life and the things I do would be close to meaningless to me if I wasn’t constantly digging deeper into my own conscious where the Divine moves.

I often feel very alone, even in my most meaningful and intimate relationships. I hold onto the image that God holds my heart and that I am never alone for God does not know how to be absent. I pray for the grace of commitment, because commitment is nothing but a lot of grace received and offered. I ask for the courage to face what is in and around me; and the faith to let God hold the weight of my heart and the weight in the hearts of my friends who are broken in so many different ways, but broken, like me, nevertheless. I trust myself to choose God and choose who God is within me. And above all things, I trust in a God of transformation and redemption of all people.

Not long ago, I re-read The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne has so many deep thoughts and questions about herself and her world and often talks about two different Annes, the one who is more serious and things deeply and the one that is silly and jokes around a lot. She was terrified to show her more serious side, to reveal her dual nature, except in her writing. I know how she felt. It is much easier for me to write these things than say them to anyone. Anne was afraid to feel rejected and alone. I suppose that is my fear too. But she trusted God to hold her heart and I trust him to hold mine. The part of herself that she was so afraid to reveal is now read by millions and treasured. She wanted to be treasured, seen, heard as she wrote but never taught anyone how to listen and notice her. So maybe that's it, we can't always just expect those things from others. We have to teach them; teach them to ask us, "What do you want?" and "What does your deeper self desire?"

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Overflowing Grace

"Pain is beauty." Even in saying that, I am hiding from and putting walls up against my pain and I thought I was past all that. I have already begun this grace-filled journey. Pain is not beauty. Pain is messy, dirty, uncomfortable, and horrifying. But there is grace to be found. I learned last year to hold my pain and to allow others to hold it with me. I learned to be in solidarity with others in their pain and to feel it like my own. Still, it takes constant effort to continue to face it, and not only face it, but walk through it and feel it. And why do I keep choosing to welcome my pain as a visitor? Because it is where Grace always meets me and sits with me in solidarity. Somehow I always am able to carry Grace with me long after the overwhelming pain has taken its leave. Sure, there is lingering grief, there always is, but Grace is always stronger. It is who I am choosing to be and who I am becoming.

Recently I have been dwelling on the story of Adam and Eve. Christians tell this story the same way most of the time. The serpent tricked Eve, Eve gave the apple to Adam, they both realized they were naked and hid from God, God found them and punished them with banishment and death. Right? Isn't that basically how we have all heard it? Adam and Eve disobeyed God and now all of humanity is cursed. Simple justice, right? But what if that isn't the story at all? And what if the story had happened differently? What if Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit, but instead of hiding from God, had run to God and told him what they did? What if they had fallen before him and confessed their broken trust right away? Or what if they never ate of the tree at all? What if they had said, "Sorry serpent, but we have to talk to God about this first," and then went to God with all of their questions and doubts and asked him to explain himself?

How interesting it is that the very first thing Adam and Eve are ashamed of is their nakedness! Nakedness is a symbol of ultimate vulnerability. They were just as naked before they ate the fruit, but as soon as they are aware of their own vulnerability they are suddenly ashamed enough to hide. Before, there was nothing to hide, they were completely vulnerable and open in their relationship and trust with God and one another. But they were lied to, they doubted, they decided that their relationship with God wasn't enough, and they chose to break it and then hide from it. Their sin wasn't about the act of disobedience. It wasn't about breaking rules, do's, don'ts, should's, and shouldn'ts. To simplify it and make our relationship with God merely about obedience and disobedience does nothing by stagnate our trust in the One who loves us and offers grace abundant. They had a choice to choose trust in and relationship with God but they chose their laws, institutions, and "knowledge of good and evil." Most Christians I meet today really haven't learned much from Adam and Eve. We still very much like our laws and institutions.

In my own struggles over my life choices, my relationships, my sexuality, my vocation, my art, etc, I am finding that rules don't work for me. I don't want the knowledge of what is good and what is evil, I simply want to choose to be in relationship with God and trust that the Divine moves in me and through me and all around me. I am learning to trust in the Divine spirit that lives in me and in my own character and am finding that Grace really is an overflowing cup offered to every soul to drink from. And it is never emptied.