Swimming as resistance

Friday morning I finished the Advent devotional I started in December – and with Ash Wednesday just under 3 weeks away! In case it isn’t already clear from that statement, I’ll be more explicit: I don’t have it all together. Last week, because we had company coming, we cleaned. I am not exaggerating when I say I can’t remember the last time we did that. (But if I had to guess, I’d say it may have also been in December, right before we invited students over for a meal before exams started.)

These are statements of fact, not self-flagellation. I hope they’ll engender some trust so you’ll hear what I’m saying as one thing I’m doing that’s helping me. One thing in the midst of many many undone or poorly done things. One thing that requires planning, fortitude, discipline, and commitment – in the midst of a poorly tended house, spotty devotional life, and slapdash weekly meal planning “regimen.”

It’s important to me that you get this, that you understand I am not the kind of person who has issues of “Real Simple” magazine fanned out on my dust-free coffee table while the kitchen timer goes off on our baking dinner, just as my husband arrives home from work and I am finishing up my at-home Pilates workout. (And all the bills are paid and thank you notes written and volunteer work scheduled, with plenty of “me time” in the mix.)

Got it? Good.

Because I’ve been kicking ass at swimming. I haven’t set a formal goal for the miles I hope to cover this year, but I have been tracking my swimming and so far in 2017 I’ve swum 40.45 miles.

Screenshot of my Go the Distance progress from the US Masters Swimming fitness log.

At the end of January I had to be in another city for most of the week at a denominational gathering whose schedule ran from 8am until 10pm with no breaks or free time, and I called around in advance to find a pool I could swim in that week. It required getting up at 4:30am, to overlap with their lap swimming times and the only free-time available to me, but I did it – every day I was there. I did not get enough sleep that week and most days I only swam a mile, in order to have enough time to get dressed and eat breakfast and be back by 8am. But it was a life-saving move on my part, to get up and move before a day of prolonged sitting, to spend those first few hours alone and focused on myself before being with and focusing on other people the rest of the day.

More than I would like, these days feel rushed and anxious and overfull and underdone. Too much, too fast, and the constant, demoralizing news from Washington, D.C. The word with the most resonance in my circles is “resist.” Resist the administration’s overreach. Resist racist, xenophobic, unjust policies. Resist and refuse to believe this is normal.

Since my time at Standing Rock, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and closed bank accounts. Since the inauguration, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and preached sermons and forced myself to read more news – and to get away from news and offline. I want just about everything to change right now and it’s tempting to spend all of my time and energy in a frenzy of against-ness, an anxiety ball of activity and worry and strategic next-stepping.

This is why a crucial part of my own resistance is swimming. I am resisting the notion that it’s all up to me so I can never stop writing/calling/posting/protesting. I am resisting the notion that a well-lived life amounts to unceasing work and external and recognizable products/results. I am resisting the idea that resistance itself is one thing.

A friend posted on Facebook yesterday that he was cooking a slow-roasted tomato soup, with the comment, “Sometimes #Resistance means cooking!” Yes!

This is not a call to retreat. It’s a reminder that resistance is a long-term activity and we are in need of more sustenance than just the fast-burning fuel of outrage and anger. We need the parts of life that remind us why we bother resisting.

I need swimming. It literally makes me stronger. It literally forces me to breathe. It focuses me and quiets my mind and spirit. It makes me feel fierce. More than once, on the way home from the pool, I have thought, “Take that, Donald Trump!” And while the defiant attitude feels good, what feels even better is giving myself a healthy, anxiety-tamping way to mark my days and my progress. Some swimmers sing songs to themselves as they swim. I usually don’t, but lately there have been a few times when I’ve pictured the iconic scene from Casablanca when the French resistance drowns out the Nazis by singing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s, “Allons! Enfants de la Patrie!” echoing in my head at the flip turn, pushing me to keep going.

The Advent devotional I finally finished includes this beautiful sentence: “A baby had been born, they were told, who would show people a way out of their small pinched lives, a way to abandon themselves to the ever-present, unstoppable current of Love that carries all things to radiant wholeness” (All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, Gayle Boss). If resistance is only about winning on Twitter or SNL or even in the actual law, it’s possible we are still living “small pinched lives.” Cooking, listening to and making music, observing Sabbath, reading novels, watching movies, making pottery and art, running, hiking, and swimming…these are resistance, too. These are life-giving fuel for the long road ahead, and they put us in touch with that “ever-present, unstoppable current of Love.”

The bathrooms at my house need cleaning again. There is a fresh pile of crumbs around my stepson’s place at the dining room table. We are almost out of coffee. I haven’t yet read today’s Bible passage for our Bishop’s challenge. I have a sermon to work on and the day’s news to digest. Some of that will get done today.  I will definitely (defiantly and deliciously) swim.

Still no apologies

Almost five years ago I wrote, “Maybe the most revolutionary and playful thing we can do is to play unapologetically, to give ourselves permission and to stop seeking it from anyone else.   Play is revolutionary.”  I wish I could say I’ve carried through with the revolution by now, but I’m still working on it.

Thanks to Topology Magazine for re-running this early piece.  It’s a good reminder to me in what has been feeling like a very un-playful time lately.  I hope you will find in it some support, encouragement, and permission to let loose and play with your whole being this week.

Jesus Promises They Will Hate Us

 

Walking into Oceti Sakowin Camp with the sun rising, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

A sermon preached on Luke 21: 5-19 and Isaiah 65: 17-25, on November 13, 2016, at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.

As I think you all know by now, last week I traveled to North Dakota, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I had been watching the news for more than a month, learning about the multiple Native tribes who had come together to camp out on the prairie to protect the water of the Missouri River, where a company from Texas has been making its way across four states with an oil pipeline (called the Dakota Access Pipeline), including plans to tunnel under the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. I had read about the original route for the pipeline, which was supposed to cross under the river north of Bismarck (about an hour’s drive north of the reservation). But the people in Bismarck thought that sounded dangerous and risky to them and their water, so the plans changed to avoid that town – but not to avoid the risks to water contamination all together. I had read about the peaceful prayerful protests and about indigenous people from all over the globe traveling to North Dakota to support and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Since last April, thousands of people have been camping and protesting and trying to protect the water. In the last month, a highly militarized police and security force began shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and at even at their horses. A private militia hired by the oil company set dogs on protestors, some of whom were mauled. Authorities in riot gear have used pepper spray and sound cannons on peaceful, prayerful protestors exercising their first amendment rights – protestors and water protectors who are bathed every day in prayer and who pray daily for those officers. Authorities have locked up journalists who have tried to cover the events and have thrown over 400 people in jail on contrived charges in attempts to intimidate them into stopping and disbanding. In jail they have needlessly strip-searched people in order to humiliate and further intimidate them. They have shipped some of those in custody to jails several hours away, to make it harder to get back home again or find rides when they are eventually released, sometimes on bail as high as $1500 per person. When their court dates come around, they will be required to travel hours back to those other towns to appear. Police are using helicopters and drones constantly circling overhead and they have road blocked the main highway between the reservation and Bismarck. They constantly stand guard at the roadblock with additional forces keeping watch from the nearby ridges.[i]

As things came to a head and became violent in this past month, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other Native groups I’ve been following began asking explicitly for more people to join them. We need numbers, they said. We need them to see we won’t go away and we aren’t alone. Please help us. I kept reading and following and praying. I didn’t really think about going. It’s the middle of the semester. It’s a really long way away. Wouldn’t it be better to send them money for winter supplies? It didn’t seem reasonable or feasible. Then Rev. John Floberg, a feisty crusty old Episcopal priest who’s been serving in the communities on and near the Reservation for 25 years, sent out a call to clergy. It’s time to come, he said. I know it’s inconvenient and this is short notice but this is it. They need us. We can provide a protective witness for their struggle. He was hoping to get 100 clergy and over 500 of us answered the call. But I told colleagues and friends who were going “no” at least twice before I changed my mind. I told God “no” more than that. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. All the same “reasonable” things popped up – money, time, effort, inconvenience, family commitments… As I pondered and said “no” and delayed, the airline tickets kept going up. Wouldn’t it be better to send them $1000 for food and warm clothes and winter camping supplies? What am I going to do? But the Holy Spirit would not leave me alone and the people of Standing Rock kept saying, We need help. We need you to come. At some point in that epic week of wrestling with God about this decision, I realized that, unlike so many many things in the world, this is something I am qualified to do. I am a person who prays; I am a visible sign of the church; I have a body and I’m able and well enough to travel. I don’t know what to replace pipelines with or how to implement renewable energy plans. I don’t know how to map an alternate route for this pipeline. I couldn’t convene a meeting with President Obama or film a documentary about this struggle. But I was absolutely qualified to put on my clergy garb and say “yes” to my far away neighbors who needed help I could provide, and spend some money and travel in the middle of the night and stand in the middle of the prairie with them and pray.

I am not telling you this so you will praise me or come tell me after worship how amazing it is that I went. I do appreciate the support and prayers from Wesley folks and others in Charlottesville as I answered that call, but that’s not why I’m telling you this now. I’m trying to let you in on, as best I can, how inelegant and clumsy and wrestling-match-like my discernment was – and how blessed I was by choosing to go where and when I was asked, to offer what was asked of me, and not to rationalize or monetize my way out of it.

Most importantly, I am telling you this in the hopes that when you hear someone’s request or see someone in need of help and solidarity, you won’t take as long as I did to wrestle it out.

The pipeline may or may not be stopped or re-routed and you may or may not think pipelines are a bad idea – but there are not “two sides” to this situation. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being beaten and jailed and harassed and intimated without any just cause.

This sermon is not about the election, exactly. It’s about how Christians are called to act no matter who is in power, no matter how prosperous and peaceable the times, no matter how war-torn and uncertain.

Luke records Jesus saying, as the disciples admired the stonework and the architecture of the temple, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” When Luke writes down those prophetic words of Jesus the temple’s destruction is already 15 years ago for Luke’s own audience.

Jesus says, This is impressive and beautiful but it will be dust. It will not stand the test of time. It will be destroyed. He stands in the shadow of the empire and the religious institutions of his day telling his band of followers that everything will crumble and war will break out and they will be arrested and persecuted – but that, even in the midst of all that, God is still counting the hairs on each of their heads. By enduring, holding tight to God alone, they will “gain their lives” (v. 18).

Jesus does not promise wealth or peace between the nations of the world. He does not promise that the institutions and the things they love about the current regime will be spared. He promises natural and human-made destruction, famine, health epidemics, kingdoms collapsing, prison, religious persecution, and betrayal by loved ones. Jesus promises that people will hate us because of him.

 

Since Election Day incidents of hate speech, graffiti, and intimidation, targeted at Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, and women, have increased. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and as of 5pm on Friday night, there were over 200 such incidents since Election Day. People have been approached in the street, found graffiti on their apartment doors, been directly put down and threatened in school cafeterias, and more, told to “get out of our country” and “If you aren’t born here, pack your bags.” A Black woman was standing at a traffic light in Louisiana when a truckload of white men pulled up and shouted at her, “F*** your black life!” They laughed and chanted “Trump!” as they drove off. According to Inside Higher Ed, at New York University’s engineering college someone defaced the door to a designated Muslim prayer room, by scrawling “Trump!” across it. Even before Tuesday’s results, we here at UVA have experienced a spate of hateful speech and harassment directed towards Jews, the LGBTQ community, Black students, Muslims, and women. We have seen enough of this here that a collection of student organizations has come together under the name Eliminate the Hate and they are sponsoring a week of activities and events on Grounds this week, to speak out and up against this rising tide.

In the middle of another tumultuous and destructive time, Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 65: 17-19):

For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.

 

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight.

 

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,

and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,

or the cry of distress.

 

Isaiah wrote these words to the war-torn remnant of Israel who were finally returning home after 60 years as captives in Babylon. They are words of hope but they must have been a teary and anguished hope to the people’s ears as their eyes took in their destroyed homes and vineyards and towns. Nothing was intact or as they had left it. They had to start over again. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”…”be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating”…It must have seemed impossible to those returning exiles that they would forget what had happened, that standing in the rubble of their former lives they could ever forget the world-shifting loss or that moment or any of those long 60 years. It must have seemed insane to stand in that situation in that moment and be told to “rejoice” in what God was creating. Where, God? Exactly where in this mess is your beautiful handiwork?

But God promises that the houses and vineyards they build will not be in vain. They will make it through to live in them and to harvest the fruit. Their hard and faithful work of rebuilding will not be in vain. God promises to answer before the people even ask, before they call out again.

Spoken into a broken time of uncertainty and great fear, Isaiah proclaims that even though you may not be able to see it yet, God is still working. What looks ugly and destroyed is the fertile soil for what grows next. Hang on and hope, because here’s what you will see soon.

Sunrise over Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

One of the things I noticed at Standing Rock was how the Native people referred to others as “relatives.” There is a loudspeaker in the camp and as the morning was getting started around the sacred fire, someone came on and said, “Good morning, relatives!” When indigenous people from around the world arrive at Standing Rock, they say, “Our relatives from New Zealand and Hawaii are here.” This deep recognition of their connection as indigenous people, across country and landscape, is the basis for this huge gathering of tribes (nothing like this has been seen in more than a hundred years).

Since I returned home, I’ve been following Lyla June Johnston, a Navajo woman who spoke to the clergy group and joined us in our prayer and protective action. She impressed and humbled me when she described the Walk of Forgiveness she was organizing for the Sunday after we were there. She talked about how important it was for all of us to join them in their stand and encouraged those of us who are white, descendants of colonizing settlers, to be proud of our own family lineage but also to admit to what our people have done. She said, “Your job is to acknowledge what happened and Native peoples’ job is to forgive.”

This week after the election she posted this prayer to Facebook:  “Creator may you bless my dear uncle Donald Trump. May you help him to heal. May you help him to feel Your Love. May you help to ease his fears and help him to sense Your True Blessing. Help him to forgive himself and others so he may be free. And most of all, just give whatever blessing you would have for Your son, and my uncle. May we continue to retain our nature in the spirit of Your unconditional and restorative love and forgiveness. May we continue to work for health and justice with love for the unhealthy and the unjust. #NotMyPresident #JustMyUncle #Ké” [K’é means kinship]

This is the result of seeing one another as relatives. This is what a Christian prayer ought to sound like. This prayer has meat on it and it’s more daring and courageous and faithful than the mere lip service we sometimes give to the theological understanding that we are “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ. This is the kind of prayer that seeks to create connection and solidarity with some people – and might also make others hate you. Just as Jesus promised.

I don’t think it is a surprise to many of us that we live in a divided country. But it seems this week that we were surprised by just how divided. Almost no one thought Trump would win the election. No one thought the vote would be half and half.

However you voted, half of our brothers and sisters, our relations, voted differently than you did. What I’ve heard most Americans saying this week is “They” didn’t know how many of us there were, or, “They” didn’t know how dangerous their vote was. I have not heard most Americans this week confessing that we have been just fine up until now not knowing or caring about those other relations in that other half. Those aren’t my neighbors.

Rev. John Floberg, who called us out to Standing Rock, reminded us on the night before our protective witness with the Native people, that the police officers we would see across the divide, that barricaded highway bridge, were not our enemies. He reminded us that on the cross Jesus did not rebuke, he forgave – with his dying breath. So, John Floberg said, “We greet the officers with prayer and love and compassion, too.”

This is hard.

Those stones are beautiful but they will be rubble one day. This will not stand.

My life is not in the Democratic Party or even my personal shero Hillary Clinton. My neighbor’s life is not in Trump or the Republican Party or Bernie or any candidates or parties. Our lives, patriotic and democracy-inspired as they may be, are not in these United States. Or in the dream of moving to Canada or making this country “great again.”

Our lives are in Jesus Christ.  They will hate us because of Jesus. Keep going. All this destruction and despair? Raw materials for the beautiful new creation of God.

This is not the time to keep your head down and wait for the uneasiness to pass. This is not the time to think I’m not a racist/ I love Muslims/ I don’t sexually assault women/ I welcome immigrants / I care for the disabled and then be done with it as if you have completed your task. This is not the time to think I’m happy with my vote and I’m nice to people and that’s enough.

The election may or may not have gone in the direction you hoped for – but there are not “two sides” to this situation of increased, targeted hate crimes and speech. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being harassed and intimated simply because they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or people with disabilities or women or….

This is not the time to put your head down in prayer and hope it will pass. This is the time to lift your head up, take in the destruction you see, and stare straight in the face of hate while you proclaim and enact and witness to Love.

Love in these times means refusing to eliminate half of our country when you consider who your neighbors are. That means you don’t have “elite” and “uneducated” neighbors; you simply have neighbors with different life experiences than yours and if you don’t understand those, it’s time to learn and to meet some new people, and work on loving them. Love in these times means resisting and standing up to hate in its many insidious forms. Speak out, stand with, and offer to walk alongside those in this community who are targets of bigotry. Literally, offer to walk with students in unsafe situations around Grounds. Use the Just Report It system. Call for help. Keep watch when something seems off. Do not remain silent when people are degrading and demeaning and intimidating and targeting others in speech or action. State unequivocally that hate speech and “us” and “them” commentary is not OK with you. Attend the Eliminate the Hate teach-in to learn about your own blind spots and to walk across some of our community’s divides to meet your relations.

No matter how uncertain and fearful the times, no matter how unfamiliar the landscape, no matter how unknown and un-relatable our neighbors, our relatives – God is creating a new heaven and earth, right now. In the middle of this huge mess. Believe it.

The only temple that will not fall – not even in the face of death itself – is Love. Let’s work with God to build it.

Thanks be to God!

 

*

Photos are my own.

 

Endnote:

[i] This is a compiled account from months of reading and following the news. A few good places to learn more and follow the ongoing stand are: https://www.facebook.com/Indigenousrisingmedia/

http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access

http://standwithstandingrock.net

http://ictmn.lughstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/DAPL-Magazine-2016_PREVIEW_r1.pdf

http://westernjurisdictionumc.org/wjumc-bishops-send-letter-to-president-obama-in-support-of-standing-rock-sioux-nation/

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-showdown-at-standing-rock-20161108-story.html

 

 

Prayer, pizza, and blazing signs of hope

post-election-prayer-and-pizza-at-wesley-at-uva-on-11-9-16

The table was set at Wesley last Wednesday night, and they came.

It’s been a long week, folks.  If you are preparing to preach or to listen to preaching this weekend, you have my heartfelt sympathy and blessings as you make your way to that moment and beyond.  In the midst of all this, it’s been a hope-filled week in campus ministry.  I hope you will head over to Ministry Matters today to read my latest reflection.

 

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

hillary_clinton_dnc_july_2016

The first time I heard of Hillary Rodham Clinton was a mention in the pages of Ms. magazine, which I got delivered to my P.O. box in a small Appalachian town with one flashing yellow traffic light. In the pre-internet days, subscribing to Ms. was one of the ways I kept up with news beyond the county where I lived. During the primaries for the presidential election of 1992 there was a two-page spread on all of the candidates, a chart listing accomplishments, offices held, positions on certain issues, and, way over in the final column of the chart, room for additional comments. In that last column on Bill Clinton’s row it said that one of the best aspects of a Clinton presidency would be his amazing wife, Hillary, and listed some of her accomplishments. I took notice and, obviously, never forgot that last nugget of info in that last column.

This summer during the Democratic National Convention, I was vacationing with my family, celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We had an unspoken and amicable agreement not to watch the partisan news networks while we were all together, so I retreated to our bedroom early on the night of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech so I could watch it live. She shone in her white suffragette-inspired (pant)suit and she knocked it out of the park. The next morning I got up and drove to the pool to swim laps, thinking the whole time I was swimming that it was a different world from the day before. Now, it’s real. A woman is the candidate for a major political party.

I have hated this election as much as the next person, though I don’t agree that the candidates (plural) have been the most antagonistic and mean-spirited ever. One of them has been, while the other has persevered and persisted and taken the high road and continued being one of the most qualified presidential candidates we have ever had. I know we are a deeply divided nation with old festering wounds we need to irrigate and re-dress and heal. It feels like there is a lot at stake because there is a lot at stake. Many of us are waking up to the realities we have been a part of our whole lives and reconsidering our history of racial injustice. Agencies and systems and the status quo, which we thought were fair and just, are being exposed, shown to be infected with the same disease in need of the same healing. It’s painful and confusing. The way forward will be awkward and painful, as healing is. It is hard to ask for forgiveness and to grant it.

I know everything does not change overnight when a new name is next to “President.” Ask Barack Obama. But then ask him again, because part of how we have gotten this far – into the painful and messy spot of owning up to the past and trying to build a better future together for all of us – is because of him. It’s because of what and who he represents and it’s because of how he has conducted himself in office – thoughtful, centered, undeterred, kind, generous, hopeful.

One of the things I remember my dad saying over and over to me as I was growing up was, “You can be the first female president of the United States, if you want to.” I never wanted to, but that continual, unflinching, unreserved vote of confidence from my dad was like a beautiful and important vein through my childhood (and beyond), supplying me with the encouragement I didn’t always know I needed to feel confident and grounded and safe and appreciated and valued. Seen. (Contrast this to Barbara Kingsolver’s adolescent conversations on the topic with her father.)

By the statistics and demographics, this would seem an unlikely way for me to grow up, being raised as I was in the seventies by a Southern, white father who grew up a poor farmer and was the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.

Careful how you lump folks together, especially when you think you have “them” all figured out. Not all Republicans (if there are any real ones left) and not all Trump supporters are raging misogynistic racists. This doesn’t excuse those who are, nor does it excuse their candidate, who is both. But it is to say that people are complex and beautiful – especially when you don’t understand what makes them tick. It is to say that we are a country full of neighbors and we need to act like it again, no matter how we voted. Most of us want things to get better in our country – and most of us need help seeing how, from another’s perspective, “better” might look different than we at first imagine. There will be ample time and opportunity to work on this kind of love for our neighbors in the aftermath of this election.

But today.

Today, the little girl in me who never wanted to be president but always knew she could be voted for the woman who has endured and persevered in order to serve her neighbors in our country’s highest office. Today I voted for the first female president of the United States of America, eight (and four) years after I voted for the first Black president. I did not choose “the lesser of two evils.” I chose the woman I have been following since 1992, the woman who’s been working for a better country for even longer, the United Methodist who clearly lives out her faith in her life of service. I enthusiastically, joyfully, unapologetically, historically chose Hillary Clinton, the absolute best candidate for the job. I voted and then I went to the pool to swim laps, like I do every day and not at all like any other day.

 

*

Photo credit: By Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Belief’s back side

Ruined book cover_everhart_aug 2016

It was when I lived in the heart of Appalachia for three years between college and seminary, that I started to cringe whenever I heard sweet, well-meaning folks say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I knew what they meant, these generous volunteers from around the US who spent vacation weeks to help repair and build homes for low-income people. For some of them, it was a huge step to get to the place of uttering this phrase. It meant they could see how similar they were to the people they had come to help. When people said this, they meant it was hitting them fresh in the face that a paycheck or an illness or birth into a different family would have put them in the same position of poverty and need.

My cringe response developed because of what was not said. If – except for the bounty of God’s grace – you might be in the same situation as that person over there, does that mean God’s grace ran out for that person? If the only thing separating you from that person over there is the grace of God, does that mean God does not bestow grace upon him?

Ruth Everhart calls it the “back side” of our theology, these second-thought obvious questions and holes exposed by our first-thought confident statements of faith. It’s a helpful term, focusing on what’s behind/beside/beneath what we say. Everhart’s new memoir, Ruined, explores the experience she and her college housemates had of being sexually assaulted in their home, and how her life, love, and faith unfolded in the years that followed. As she and her housemates attempted to make sense of what had happened to them, the language and theology they used to do so betrayed the differences in their experience and theology.

One housemate, Cheryl, had not been raped. Everhart overhears Cheryl saying to another friend, “I just kept reciting the Twenty-third Psalm over and over, and I guess God heard me.” Everhart continues, “Didn’t she know that we’d all been saying that psalm while our heads were smashed into the nap of the carpet? I kept my distance from Cheryl after that. She’d had her own experience of the crime and her own reaction. Her belief that God had intentionally spared her obviously gave her comfort. Who knows? Perhaps in her shoes, I would have felt the same. But Cheryl seemed unaware of the back side of her belief about being spared. What did that mean for the rest of us, who had not been spared?” (Ruined, p. 79).

Everhart, who was raised in the Dutch Calvinist tradition and eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister, frames her story with stark markers of “back side belief.” She begins the book with this sentence: “It happened on a Sunday night, even though I’d been a good girl and gone to church that morning” (p. 3). In the epilogue, she reflects on the moment, decades later, when one of her young daughters first learns about the assault on her mother. Her daughter finds an old news clipping Everhart saved: “’Rapist-robber? Oh, Mom’ – your face twisted up – ‘you mean you weren’t a virgin when you married Dad! Poor you!’ It was a shock to realize that your understanding of sexual violence was being filtered through the language of sexual purity” (p. 317). It was shocking to me, as a reader and a Christian, to consider her daughter’s reaction. How odd to have compassion (“Poor you!”) so misplaced (“you weren’t a virgin”). How strange and twisted a “Christian” belief whose back side is worry over purity/virginity rather than over a violent attack.

What we profess is important. But if we have not examined the back side of those beliefs, we don’t know what we are saying – or what we really believe.

There is so much to recommend Everhart’s book, beginning with her writing, that manages to be both incisive and humorous in exactly the right places. Everhart is not an untouchable hero in this story, making all the “right” choices about her life, but she is deeply relatable, even if your own experience of sex, violence, and faith have been different than hers. I admired the intentional way she attempts to overcome her fear of black men after the attack. Everhart is white, from an overwhelmingly white community and church, and had very few interactions with black people before the black attackers broke into her home. As she describes her post-attack encounters with black men, she is honest about her unflattering knee-jerk reactions while also being kind with her still-terrified younger self. Her later church shopping struck me as genuine and wise, when she trusts God’s “Spirit to do something important in this hour every week, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was” (p. 275).

This is an honest and important book – especially for the church, where we so often have trouble discussing sex and sexual violence and where the unexamined back side of our belief heaps harm upon violation, for those in the pews and for our neighbors.

If you have read a blurb about Ruth Everhart’s memoir and were pretty sure it wasn’t going to make your reading list, I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and read it anyway. Despite the title, this is not a story of ruin, but of profound and inviting redemption. If you’re brave enough to accompany Ruth as she so beautifully describes her life and faith, you realize the only thing ruined was the theology that claimed that word.

 

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Full Disclosure: I received a free advance reader copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Photo credit: Ruined book cover. Used with the permission of Ruth Everhart.

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Adding the flip turn

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Flip turns have a mystique about them. Walk up to any pool and watch folks swimming laps. Your eyes will immediately go to the swimmers who do flip turns at the walls. It doesn’t matter if they are faster than the other swimmers, they will look fiercer because of the flip turn. Conversely, if, instead of doing flip turns, you saw Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps sticking their heads up at the walls, gulping air, turning awkwardly half out of the water, then plunging back in for the next lap, they would seem significantly less fierce.

On swim teams in junior high and high school I did a lot of flip turns. Even with the flip turns, I never looked particularly fierce but they were a regular part of my swimming. When I started swimming again a few years ago, I gave myself permission not to include flip turns. It seemed like a good deal: expend my limited energy on the strokes and the laps themselves and give myself a little extra breath and time at the walls. I made this decision intentionally and unapologetically. The goal was more swimming, not “perfect” swimming. During these past few years, I have reserved the occasional flip turn for special circumstances, like the time I felt strong and energized hitting lap number 100 and joyously flipped at the wall to celebrate it.

Lately, I’ve been adding the flip turn back into my freestyle laps. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m considering an open water swim this summer but flip turns are completely unnecessary in lakes, so that’s not it. This most excellent and inspiring ode to the flip turn encouraged me but didn’t push me over the edge. I think it’s just time. Like it was time to get back in the pool a few years ago. Back then, I gave myself permission to swim without flip turns. Now, I’ve given myself permission to flip again (and sometimes, not to flip – as with the earlier deal with myself, I’m not after perfection and I’m not requiring all or nothing).

One of the things I hope this summer’s sabbatical will show me is how to distinguish between the need for rest and the need for persistence. How do I know when I’m hitting a groove I should explore and stick with, versus knowing when to back off, versus knowing when to go harder even though I’m already losing steam? Maybe I’m seeing part of the answer in swimming.

When you hit the wall you have several choices: 1) call it a day, stop swimming, and hang on for dear life, 2) grab as much air as you can every single second your head is out of the water while you turn around inelegantly but practically, then push off and carry on as best you can, or 3) make the turn as smooth and seamless a part of your stroke as possible, flipping around and using the wall itself to propel you in the next direction. They are all valid choices. I’m thankful for my unapologetic miles logged choosing #2. And really curious to see where #3 sends me.

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Photo credit: Screen grab of video shot by P. Chambers, June 2016. Used with permission.

Women like us: I miss Oprah

Oprah_Winfrey_c2007_vargas2040_wikicommons

When I began finding errant hairs growing from my chin and neck, I plucked furiously. Then I called my mom to see what she does about this annoying cosmetic problem.

“On your neck? Huh.”

I tried her twin sister, who also had no personal experience with my problem.

I love them both, but there have been quite a few times when I’ve had to look elsewhere for womanly advice or tips. My mom is a thin, perfectly proportioned, white woman who looks younger than she is and who can walk into any dressing room and look gorgeous in whatever she tries on, which fits perfectly, of course.

I can relate to this experience in the sense that I am also a white woman.

For a long time, I turned to Oprah. Oprah’s like the big sister I never had, ten years ahead. She has an ample chest and curvy figure and dreads dressing rooms like I do. I don’t think I ever watched a show about unwanted facial hair, but there could have been one and, regardless, I’m sure she would relate. By the time her broadcast show went off the air, I was no longer watching daily, though I knew she was there if I had time and needed her. It’s not the same now. We don’t have cable and, in any case, her new shows and channel are a different enterprise, focused on spirit and big ideas – what I do all day anyway – and no help with wild sprouts of hair, so it’s been a while since I could really lean on her.

About 10 years ago, Oprah had a show on perimenopause, which is when I learned that word. Menopause is the time after all menstrual periods have stopped for at least one year. Perimenopause is the weird, sometimes decade-long time of flux between normal monthly cycles and menopause. It’s what a lot of women mean when they say “going through menopause.”

At the time that show aired, I had begun to experience regular migraines, trouble sleeping, sweeping mood swings, the intermittent grip of high anxiety, the aforementioned hair in fun new places, and some other things I can’t remember (bonus: memory is also affected by perimenopause). Before watching the Oprah episode, I had never laid them all out like that in a list because I didn’t think of them as related symptoms. They were just some of the various ways I was falling apart, health-wise.

Oprah knew there were a lot of women like me so she did a show, bestowing the word we didn’t know we needed in our vocabularies, and offering help. The doctor on the show that day commented that we often talk about estrogen levels but it’s actually the interplay between levels of various hormones that causes symptoms and problems. She had a handy PowerPoint-style presentation listing “too high” or “too low” slides with either estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone at the top, and symptoms below each one. When she got to the chart showing low progesterone, it may as well have said, “Deborah Lewis, this is your life.”

Seeing my nurse practitioner shortly afterwards, I said, “I saw an Oprah show and I think I may have low progesterone.” I recited the symptoms I’d previously thought were unrelated and she said, “I think you might be right. Let’s test it.” Then she wrote down the details of the Oprah episode so she’d be prepared when other patients inevitably came in to follow up on the show.

When I asked my mom about perimenopause and menopause, she didn’t know exactly when the change happened. It was masked by a medication she was taking and her cycles had simply stopped by the time she went off the drug. She didn’t remember any problems in the years before that. Neither did my aunt. Everything was smooth sailing in those dressing rooms.

As it becomes clear that I’m one of those women with a long perimenopause, a cornucopia of changes and fun new surprises, I’ve been missing Oprah, wishing for an old-school show on perimenopause, part two, “The Later Years.” Most of my close friends are younger than I am so I’m the perimenopause pioneer. As the eldest granddaughter on both sides of the family, whose grandmothers are dead, and whose mother and aunts cannot provide any useful information about managing this time, Oprah was the big sister I needed and still need sometimes.

Oprah’s the one who could frame expectations for what was about to happen, the one who could say with authority, “Let’s go to another store where the clothes are made for women like us.”

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photo credit: By vargas2040, Cropped by OsamaK [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Fallow

Collegeville_literarylife

I’ve always liked the word “fallow.” I like the sound of it, the short “a” sound followed by the long “o” sound. I like that it’s almost “follow,” but not quite. Mostly, I appreciate its indication that when it looks as if nothing is happening, looks are probably deceiving. Rest is some of the deepest work to be done.

Here’s how Ken Chitwood recently described it in Sojourners (“A Crucial Ingredient in Justice Work: Rest”): “Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.”

To lie fallow is to engage in a season of rest. One of the things I love about liturgical life is its emphasis on seasons. We move around the cycle of a year, changing the colors of vestments and paraments, focusing on certain parts of our story and then on others. I’m tempted to say winter is my favorite season of the year because I love the cold and snow and we rarely get enough in Virginia to satisfy me, but the truth is I love every season while we are in it. I love the annual cycle and the delights that belong only to the season at hand, the inchworm-green of new spring shoots, the languorous late-light evenings of summer, the crisp bite and mature colors of fall.

Only sometimes, I have trouble being in the season at hand. I know something about the ravages of wind and rain, exposed roots. Jesus had to be hunted down while he was praying in a deserted place by himself (Mark 1: 35-36) and he regularly took time out and away. This is supposed to be a model for me, for all of us. I also know it’s easier to fill up the empty months of a sabbatical than it is to empty out one day a week for Sabbath. As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (The Writing Life).

I don’t want to spend my life as a fallow field. But then again, I’m not really in danger of that happening. I am in danger of trying to earn my way to the grace of rest and replenishment.

I’m on study leave this summer, three days in. When I’ve mentioned this, most people have immediately asked what I’m going to do. I suppose I could be studying something “out there,” people do this all the time, take a break from the routine to write a book on church leadership or home canning. I’m on a writing retreat with my writing group this week, but I don’t have a project in mind to complete this summer. I’m going to rest and not-do. I’m trying to “study” myself. I’m lying fallow.

My goal is to resemble a field of clumpy sod, unplanted, no harvest in sight. I hope and trust God will tend me, but I’m going hands-off, list-rogue. I’m asking to be replenished and getting out of my own way so it can happen.

stainedglassview_abbeyworship_collegeville

Looking up and out from worship in the St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Nora

I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.

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photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

Who am I to stand in God’s way?

A sermon preached on Acts 11: 1-18, on April 24, 2016, at Wesley Memorial UMC.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

It’s always fun to preach on a passage full of the word “circumcision.”

But, let me quickly add, that it could be almost any word. The point in mentioning circumcision here is not to see how uncomfortable the pastor or the people will become during the sermon. The point is this: there’s a way we do things around here.

In this passage from Acts we are at the cusp of changes the disciples and other followers of Jesus weren’t expecting. At this point, almost everyone who followed Jesus was Jewish. For them, this Jesus stuff wasn’t a casting off of Judaism but the next step in their faith journeys. It follows that the norm for men in the community was still circumcision. All Jewish baby boys went through this religious ceremony and there was no reason to expect that would change. After all, Jesus was also a Jewish man and circumcised.

But at this point in the story, the radical gospel message lands on the fertile soil of other people from other backgrounds. The Holy Spirit Jesus promised whooshes into locked rooms and Gentile hearts and rustles up new followers without asking permission or checking to see who’s a card-carrying Jew.

Those are the first three verses of our passage from Acts: Throughout Judea even the Gentiles are beginning to hear and believe. So Peter is interrogated when he gets to Jerusalem – the seat of religious authority – by “the circumcised believers.” These Jewish Christ-followers at home in the seat of religious power and tradition have a few questions for Peter. They accuse him of going into the homes of the uncircumcised and then eating with them. Explain that! they say. Explain to us how you can get all tangled up with these non-Jewish people, going so far as to be received into their homes and eat at their tables!

Right up there next to circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity were the Jewish dietary laws dictating what was clean and unclean. Other people didn’t keep these laws, so eating with them, in their “unclean” kitchens, sharing their strange and “unclean” foods, was outside the bounds. You’ll remember it’s one of the things people commented on the most when taking offense at Jesus’ behavior – we even preserve the notion of his outlandish behavior in our Communion liturgies, remarking each time we feast that he “ate with sinners.”

Starting with verse four, we’re told Peter offered his explanation “step-by-step.” He tells the Jewish critics that he was praying in Joppa and had a dream, a vision. He saw a large sheet lowered down from the heavens and on the sheet all sorts of animals were depicted – wild beasts and birds and reptiles and four-legged animals of all types. And a voice told him to Get up, kill, and eat! Being a good Jewish boy, Peter snapped back, Absolutely not! I know what’s unclean and I don’t eat things like that – never!

You may remember Peter usually needs the reinforcement of a threefold repetition. The night Jesus was betrayed, he is asked three times if he used to hang out with Jesus and three times he says Absolutely not! Never seen that guy! Two weeks ago in our readings, Peter enjoys a fish breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ and three times Christ asks if Peter loves him and then, three times, commands Peter to feed his sheep (John 18: 15-27; John 21: 1-19).

Three times is a thing with Peter.

So, as with those previous stories, here staring at the sheet of various and wild and unclean animals, the Voice tells Peter three times to eat the things he sees in the vision. Never consider unclean what God has made pure (v.9), it says, then the sheet is pulled back up out of sight into heaven.

In the next moment, there’s a knock on the door. Peter finds messengers from the Gentile Cornelius and, as Peter tells it, The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. When he arrives at Cornelius’s house, Cornelius shares his own dream-message, when an angel told him to send for Peter so that Peter could tell him and the entire household how to be saved.

So Peter starts to share the gospel in this stranger’s house. And the craziest thing happened, he tells the Jerusalem rule-following crowd of critics (vv.15-17): “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift [God] gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

When the crowd of believers and skeptics hear this, they back off. They give praise to God for this amazing news – and, they conclude that God is changing Gentile hearts and lives (just like their own hearts and lives) so that they might have new life, too.

Some hearts and minds were changed and some rules broken and released that day. But it’s going to take another four chapters in Acts before these early Christians stop worrying about circumcision as a prerequisite for joining the Christ-followers. Some things don’t change all at once, but in fits and starts.

Some habits die hard.

I’m sure you can think of church arguments in your lifetime about who we eat and spend time with, about who’s truly welcome in our sanctuaries and our communities and who needs to jump another hoop, show they really mean it, look more like those of us who are already at home in religious places and traditions.

What I find puzzling is not that we argue or come at something from different angles. What I find puzzling is when we fail to acknowledge we’ve done this since the very beginning. With the hot breath of the Holy Spirit still warm on the backs of our necks, we were drawing dividing lines to determine who’s on which side. And… we shared stories of surprise and strange visions. We’ve listened, changed our made-up minds, opened wide our doors, praised God for the new vision.

If God gives them the same gift God gives us who already believe in Christ, then who am I? Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Here’s the Good News: it’s not up to us. “The work of determining who is part of God’s kingdom is never ours to do. It is always God’s decision…” (Preaching Helps at GBOD online). We aren’t the gatekeepers. We’re invited guests who’ve been given the mandate of love. We’re encouraged to look for the Spirit of God rustling up disciples we weren’t expecting. We’re allowed and expected to invite them into the fold, to feed those sister and brother sheep, to eat strange foods from strange other traditions along with them.

God does not seem to be recruiting bouncers to keep out the undesirables. In fact, God seems to like to bring home new brothers and sisters from prison and shelters and recovery programs. God seems to want a big family – from east and west, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, poor and rich, mentally ill and mentally well, minimum wage earners and retired millionaires, those who slept peacefully last night and those who were kept awake with worry or loneliness…

Little things like who eats what and who’s been circumcised and who’s memorized scripture and who uses which bathroom and who is married to whom don’t seem to count with God the way we sometimes still try to make them count when we forget and think we are the ones in charge.

God is creating a family and the invitation is open. Who are we to stand in God’s way?

That’s the way we do things around here. Don’t forget it.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit: “Sheep blocking way at Miranjani top,” © 2014 by Naryneroz (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons