Seeing Beauty: With Gods Help

Although it’s not a secret, I don’t often share about my recovery from disordered eating publicly. I’ve spent the last 16 years (good God) learning to surrender, accept my body as is, speak out against body injustice, and choose food that feels like a good choice in the moment.

On that journey I have met many powerful healers, primarily Isabel Duke but also Geneen Roth, Annie Lamont, Brenee Brown, and Catherine Hummel. On Friday night at Diaconal formation Marilee Comford joined that list.

Marilee led us in this beautiful prayer practice calls the GRACE prayer. After naming an intention for the prayer you walk/move through the five letters.

G – gratitude

R – release

A – acceptance

C – challenge

E – embrace

My intention for my prayer was body, as it had been a more difficult week in the healing department. I asked God to open me to the grace I might receive about my body.

G – I am grateful for the resilience and strength of my body when it’s been through so much.

R – I release the desires of empire that tell me to be a certain size.

… the next letter is A, acceptance, I’ve done a lot of body work so I imagined that I’d say “I accept my body just as it is.” But as I walked over to the A section the Spirit moved. She spoke to me, “What if you accepted yourself as beautiful?” That might seem like a slight reframe to some but the question still feels jarring to me.

A – I accept myself as beautiful.

C – I challenge myself to see beauty. I’ll hold this rock as a reminder.

E – I embrace where this journey might take me and I embrace God’s unending support along the way.

A Time for Hope

Happy Easter and Chag Sameach! May this be a season where we cling more deeply to the sort of Hope described by Rebecca Solnit in her book, Hope in the Darkness.

Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in.

Celebrating Easter with Darrell at St John’s Easter Vigil.

Grieving Faithfully: Lenten Reflection (40)

Scripture for Today: Matthew 27: 3-10, 55-66

I wept last night. It wasn’t the kind of crying where one cute teardrop falls down my cheek — I full on cried.

Reading the Isaiah passage for the congregation, I fought back tears as the names of people lost at the hands of senseless violence ran through my head.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
Emmett Till, Philando Castile  He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
Andrew Del Pilar, Zakaria Fry, Viccky Gutierrez, 
But it was our transgressions that wounded him, our iniquities that crushed him;
Malcolm X, Sandra Bland 
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
Martin Luther King Jr, Standing Rock Sioux
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.
Parkland High School, Pulse Nightclub, Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Jessica Leeds, Jill Harth, Mindy McGillivray
He was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin 

29594560_10104756341874551_2244687083193373744_nAs we venerated the cross, I prayed for members as they knelt. I found myself moved deeply by prayers: “May you know how deeply God loves you.” If I knew the parishioners personally I prayed in specifics: “May God break through your loneliness” or “May God’s love find a way through your adolescent aloofness.” I sensed God’s ache for each person.  And I cried.

After the service, I went back into the chapel alone and sat by our cross. My tears flowed more heavily once I was in silence. How, how, how? how do we keep letting this violence happen? Will Easter come?

 

The grief of Holy Saturday, the kind that grips our souls, is typically reserved for individual people we know and love intimately. But today we, just like Judas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, are invited to a despair that encompasses the pain of all life shed of hope, and to wonder if we will know Love.

I invite you to consider these two accounts of grief: the death of Judas and the waiting at the tomb by the women. They accounts both display the utter pain and dismay of people who loved Jesus. However, the women are able to hold onto God’s love in the midst of their grief and this love motivates them to respond faithfully.

This is the sort of grief to which we are called: to speak truth when lies are uttered, to refuse to perpetuate the lie that “it’s better,” to march, to advocate, to offer ourselves and our service to the Love of God.

Pray:  How long O Lord?

Reflect: On this Holy Saturday how does our abiding faith in God’s love motivate us to grieve death in a way that leads to faithful action?

Art: Lamentation, or the Mourning of Christ by Giotto

Words of Gratitude: Thank you to everyone for walking this Lenten journey with me. There were many days where the writing did not come easily or required me to wake early, and at those times I wished I had not made the promise to write daily. However, hearing the ways these pieces have touched you has been an invaluable gift and I pray God’s presence abounds with you as we await Easter. I am especially grateful to my friend, coach, and editor Jesse Ortiz. Without their support and commitment to this project it would not have happened.

Lost in the Crowd: Lenten Reflection (39)

 

Scripture for Today: Mark 14: 32-72, 15

Today’s post is guest written by Jesse Ortiz, Natalie’s former co-worker and blog editor. Jesse is currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at U.C. Davis. All opinions and mistakes are their own.

Where do you see yourself on Good Friday?

On March 18, two Sacramento police officers shot 20 bullets — two rounds of ammo — into a twenty-two year old man standing in his own backyard. Stephon Clark wasn’t killed for a crime. The police were told that a black man in a hoodie had been breaking windows in the area. They claim that when they saw Stephon holding his cell phone, they thought he was carrying a weapon and they feared for their own lives. Stephon’s only transgression was blackness.

Who killed Jesus? Was it the executioner who nailed him to the cross? Was it the soldiers who led him through the city? Was it Pilate, the governor who sentenced him to death?

The crowd shouted: “Crucify him!”

The soldiers, the executioners, and Pilate were all following orders. Even the apostles, Jesus’ closes confidants, fell asleep in the garden, failing to assert enough agency to stay awake and accompany their friend. Only the crowd, calling for crucifixion, could demand and receive what they wanted.

The crowd is us. The crowd is you.

According to the chief priests, what what Jesus’ greatest transgression? They claim Jesus said he “will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands” (14:58). As the scripture insists, this is false. In John 2:19, when a group of Jews ask Jesus for a sign of his authority, he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” In a sense, the people take Jesus too literally. They project their fears of instability and scarcity onto Jesus’ words, imagining that he would single-handedly raise that very same temple — violating their common sense. The people are thinking as fundamentalists, while Jesus is speaking metaphorically. And Jesus’ metaphors offer us so much more.

In the days following Stephon Clark’s execution, people across the country used their voices and feet to confront the injustice of his death. In Sacramento last week, protesters such down Interstate 5 and delayed the Sacramento Kings game to bring attention to Stephon’s death.

I was in that crowd. As the Good Friday story teaches us, a crowd has power. We don’t have to use that power to kill.

Like Easter, Good Friday isn’t just one day. Good Friday is the day a family has to mourn the death of their twenty-two year old son, father, partner, and brother. Good Friday is the day a black trans woman is murdered. Good Friday the day a U.S. military drone destroys human life. Good Friday is any day, and Good Friday is every day.

Every day, we are part of a crowd. Whenever we say “Blue Lives Matter,” we are saying “Crucify them!” Whenever we call the cops on harmless people, or call for more cops in schools, we are saying “Crucify them!” Whenever we celebrate the U.S. military, whenever we stand for the National Anthem, we are saying “Crucify them!”

As Jesus shows us, simply following the rules, taking things literally, is not enough. We must grapple with our actions and beliefs to be in right-relationship with God. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Silence, too, is persecution.

When you stand by as the U.S. builds more prisons to lock up more people, you are saying “Crucify them!” When you ignore the U.S. military action that isn’t covered in the mainstream media, you are saying “Crucify them!” When you don’t talk to your kids, your friends, or your siblings about racism, you are saying “Crucify them!” When you refuse to learn about mass incarceration, police brutality, or military violence, you are saying “Crucify them! Crucify them! Crucify them.”

Yes, every day can be Good Friday. But not every day should be. If we believe the Easter story, our world can be another way. On the day that Jesus died, his government, his community, and even his closest companions betrayed him.

Jesus died for us, and now we know so much better. Where will you be on Good Friday?

Pray: Grant me the heart that Jesus died for me to have.

Reflect: Where have you been passive in situations of injustice? What can you do when you recognize yourself as part of an oppressive crowd?

Art: From Jesse’s Instagram, an image from the #BlackLivesMatter protest in Sacramento following Stephon Clark’s death. Man holds rainbow Black Lives Matter sign in front of a gym.

Further Reading: 

 

Unknown, image found on Experimental Theology by Richard Beck http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/05/you-shall-not-wash-my-feet.html

As I Loved You: Lenten Reflection (38)

Scripture for Today: John 13:1-17,31-35

Spoiler Alert: I’ll be preaching this as a sermon at St. John’s Hingham tonight at 7:30 pm. If you’re joining us for service (which you all should!) you may want to wait and hear it then. 

When I preach, I typically wear heels. When people ask me why, I tell them it’s important for me to embrace being a femme leader in the church. Now, of course you can be femme in flats, but there’s something about claiming a little extra femme while I preach. It reminds me, and I hope others, that women are also called to lead the Church.

In addition, they make a great safety blanket. Heels elevate me, they give me a feeling of stature and command. When I take them off I instantly feel more approachable and, in being so, more vulnerable. Without the heels, or in the case of our gospel from today, without any shoes, our flaws, scratches, and not so pristine parts are visible. Our humanity is exposed. And, no one likes that.

That’s what made Jesus so different. He embraced rather than avoided humanity. He touched the scabs and sores of lepers, lovingly accepted the flaws of his followers, and showcased his own hunger and frustration.

And, if that wasn’t clear enough, during his final evening with his friends, he demonstrates an experience of love that is undeniably tied to encountering our humanity. What is more human than our feet? Or feet that sink and sweat? Or feet that are callused from the wear of life?

He says: when you share the imperfect parts of you with someone else and see the imperfect in another — then you will know love.

——

When I was writing this sermon I couldn’t stop thinking about a friend of mine who died recently from suicide. We met about two years ago; he was brilliant, beautiful, and utterly agitated by the voices in his head that denied these truths. The societal pressures of what it means to “be a man” combined with the violence experienced by black and brown communities constantly tormented him.

At one point, when I was visiting him in the hospital prior to his passing, his father said to me, “I’m not sure I ever knew my son. He was always so concerned with who he was supposed to be.”

He was always running. When we spent time together I would often ask him to stay a little longer, “just five more minutes,” hoping that if he just sat still long enough he could soak up his goodness. But that didn’t happen. He couldn’t soak up that love because soaking up the love required seeing and accepting his imperfect human parts too. And those parts were too much for him to bear.

——

In our Gospel text from today, when Jesus attempts to see the human parts of Peter, he refuses Jesus. And Jesus responds, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no share in me.”  He is so clear: if we are not willing to expose those parts of us, we won’t know his love. Our experience of love, of freedom, of release from pressures of this life, is tied up in our ability to be human.

Perhaps this is one reason our most intimate encounter with Jesus, Holy Eucharist, centers on remembering — literally, to be connected to him — through his most human parts, his body and blood.

“This is my body, broken for you.” 

In Jesus’ body we are remembered to the physical, mental, and emotional suffering he endured. The suffering of betrayal, loneliness, and rejection that we all know.  And, in lifting up his body we are invited to welcome rather than run from these moments of pain.  To know that in our moments of deepest suffering we are not alone. Rather, we can remember that we are inextricably connected to God and one another: to embody the truth of Eucharist, that we who are many are One body, because we share one bread.

—–

This is my blood, shed for you.” 

This is my blood, it was shed for you because of the human epidemic of violence. It was shed because we attack when we feel afraid, it was shed because we are taught that the safest way to stop a “bad man” with a gun is a “good man” with a gun, because we believe that hate can somehow drive out hate.

This is the aspect of humanity with which I struggle most; I can look at my ugly feet, and I can accept my own suffering, but I do not want to remember that I’m part of the perpetuation of the violence that results in oppression, segregation, racism, and innocent deaths of children in our streets and in our schools. But Jesus stands there, on his last night with us, and says: remember, reconnect to the truth that even though you perpetuate this violence, my Love will never leave you.

—-

Although I can’t fully explain it, I know our ability to give and receive love is tied to our willingness to accept our humanity, to expose our flaws, to share our sufferings, and to acknowledge our propensity to cause pain. And, I think that’s what Jesus was trying to leave his disciples with that last night.

He says: I’ve spent my life trying to model Love for you and, just in case you’ve missed it along the way, here are some tangible reminders of what it looks like: wash each other’s feet, share in one another’s pain, and tend to each other’s wounds.

What might change about the way we love one another if we remembered, literally were reconnected, to the truth that we are tied up in one another’s humanity?

How might compassion for ourselves motivate us to let go of unrealistic standards of wealth, beauty or power and embrace humanity? Instead of exhausting ourselves to do and be we could embrace a freedom that allows us to more fully know ourselves and those around us. I imagine that actually being present to the pain of depression, the fear of being ripped from one’s home, or the fragility of living on minimum wage would change our hearts. We’d love as God loved.

And, in doing so, we’d begin to deeply identify with the pain of others. This sort of love compels us to become keenly aware of the ways we benefit from systemic oppression. We are no longer satisfied knowing that our children attend good schools where they are safe. Instead, we use our energy to overturn unjust practices that unfairly distribute resources, perpetuate poverty, and destroy families. And, in doing so, we glimpse the realm of God; we create a world in which all know they are loved.

In these holiest of days we are invited to consider this questions for ourselves: what might happen if we committed our lives to embodying God’s love, through the washing of the feet, the eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup?

If we “loved one another as I have loved you.”

Pray: Undo the lies of imperfection and separation we believe.

Reflect: What element of humanity most resonated with you in this reflection? What might that reveal about how the Spirit is moving in your life today?

Art: Unknown, image found on Experimental Theology by Richard Beck

An Abstract of Grief by Nora Kasten: http://norakasten-artist.blogspot.com/2011/03/nora-kasten-acrylic-painting-grief.html

Troubled In Spirit: Lenten Reflection (37)

Scripture for Today: John 13:21-30

I love Holy Week. It’s easily my favorite holiday — if we can call it that — of the year. I was born on Easter Saturday and over the years have become more committed to attending all the Holy Week services.

My familiarity with the Holy Week rhythm is a gift, something I can slip into and let envelop me as I move through the powerful events of the week. However, the challenge of this familiarity is that I sometimes find myself skipping ahead: I really love this part in the Easter Vigil, or I relish the silence after Maundy Thursday, or I “know how the story ends.”

But the think about Holy Week that I, and I imagine we, must remember, is that there really is no end to the story of Jesus. I would even call that heresy. The story of Holy Week is an ongoing, non-linear, recurring narrative that is constantly taking place in our lives.

We praise and welcome long-awaited change.
We are angered and disappointed in what this change requires of us.
We betray those we love.
We learn how to love others in a way that requires death.

It is a living story and for that reason we are called back to it each year in order to notice how it is showing up in our lives at the current moment. We do that most fully by experiencing each day for what it has to offer.

Holy Wednesday remembers the point in the story where Jesus and others, to some extent, start to sense that something is awry. Notice how their attitude is described in this chapter: they are uncertain (v22), troubled to spirit (v21), and no one knows what’s happening (v28).

The study of these words in Greek reveals just how off things were.

The word for uncertain, aporoumenoi, here means: without any clarity at all or at a loss. And, when Jesus is troubled, etarachtne, can literally be translated as “troubled to the Spirit.” His whole being was shaken.

This state of utter confusion is very understandable. Their tight-knit community is undergoing significant change. Jesus, their leader and friend, is predicting his death and destruction. They are challenging the political and religious authorities in unprecedented ways, and no one, not even Jesus (it seems), knows what is next for them.

This is the type of confusion we try to avoid as humans. We build our schedules to safeguard us from aimlessness, we avoid the anxiety of the unknown through comforting (and sometimes harmful) behaviors, we try to use all our mental faculties to figure out solutions.

Our post-enlightenment brains are programed in every which way to shortcut uncertainty and end up at the end of the journey. However, it’s exactly this state of confusion that brings us into the holiest three days of our Christian calendar. Perhaps this is because as much as confusion is disorienting, it is also opening.

On a personal level, what would it look like to stop trying to master our least-desired habits or traits and instead surrendered to their existence? What might happen if we sat a bit more still with the fear of it all? What would we learn about ourselves, others, and God’s role in our healing?

And publicly, what might happen if we were willing to admit that we don’t know how to respond to the level of violence that exists around us? What would it look like to acknowledge that the ills of racism and marginalization are more than, “this political moment?” That despite the best strategic plans, meticulously organized campaigns, and charismatic leaders we still return to our old patterns of oppression? What could emerge if we felt confusion, grief, and bewilderment at the way our political systems betray the most vulnerable communities?

In both cases, how might the willingness to begin from perplexity, rather than resolve, change our experience of redemption? How might we more deeply know wholeness if we actually break down with the disciples and Jesus today? What if, instead of rushing to get through the next few days, we enter in fully aware of just how little we know about what God might be doing with and through our pain?

Stay with me, for I am troubled in Spirit, and the hour is at hand.

Pray: May I welcome confusion.

Reflect: In what ways is confusion present in your life today? What would it require to be more attentive to that experience of unknown?

Art: An Abstract of Grief by Nora Kasten

Audio: I offered this reflection at our cathedral’s Holy Wednesday service. Although it’s not a word for word match, the recording is below if  you’d prefer to listen.

 

https://www.etsy.com/listing/265484823/jesus-clears-the-temple-small-abstract?show_sold_out_detail=1 Jesus Clears the Temple by Melani Pyke

Love in Public: Lenten Reflection (36)

Scripture for Today: Mark 11:12-12:44

“And God will give the vineyard to others.” (12:9)

Although there are a few interpretations of the parable of the wicked tenants, the most widely accepted idea is that Jesus uses the landlord to illustrated God’s displeasure with the religious authorities (the tenants)  at that time.

Why is God so displeased? They weren’t doing their job.

This isn’t in the literal sense of tending to the vineyards — the religious authorities neglected the responsibility to care for the people of God. This failure to seek the welfare of the people motivates Jesus’ actions in this chapter.

Jesus is furious that, rather than make God accessible to people, the chief priests were  charging impoverished people unreasonable amounts of money to buy the required sacrifices to worship God. The even rob the most vulnerable (the widow) of all she owns. As the chiefs become wealthier, the people of God suffer more.

Jesus acts in reaction to this unjust treatment. He creates havoc in the established place of power and religion. He shuts down their racketeering business and calls out their wicked ways. And, in perhaps his most subversive act of this reading, he says that instead of profiting off of people you are called to love others as dearly as you love God. That love demands a deep identification with those around you and a commitment to their welfare. He insists that, in the words of Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

They were not loving their people.
They were not seeking justice.
They were not doing their job.

Naturally, the chief priests become angry when Jesus challenges their competency. They begin to grasp at anything that will stabilize their threatened power and wealth. They throw out every theological and legal challenge they can summon, hoping that something will discount this call to a radical and justice-oriented love.

Jesus’ unrelenting commitment to love his people eventually leads to his death. Pay attention to the depths of love he expresses and receives along the way to Golgotha. How does he demonstrate his love? How do others react to his way of love? This is more important than all else.

Pray: Give me the courage to love boldly.

Reflect: How has love motivated you to seek justice? Where do you notice resistance, either in your personal or public spheres, to such bold love?

Art: Jesus Clears the Temple by Melani Pyke

Resources: This reflection was largely inspired by this sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church.

This is What Democracy Looks Like: Lenten Post (35)

Scripture for Today: Mark 11:1-11

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3).

I heard the prophets shouting on Saturday.

“Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
“Black lives matter!”
“No More Silence, End Gun Violence”

I heard the echoes of the crowds in Jerusalem crying out. 

Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!
Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David!
Hosanna in highest heaven! (v 9&10)

Protest shouts are prophetic: they recognize the pain of the current moment and call into being what might be possible if we change. Our signs, collective movement, and hopeful cries enact a vision of the realm of God. In so doing, we hope to inspire change.

There was something divine about the March for Our Lives happening on Palm Sunday weekend.

The air was filled with hope for revolution and change. People were crying hosanna (literally translated from Greek: “save us”), not one more day of fear and oppression. This march was very similar to when the people sensed possibility as Jesus rolled into Jerusalem on a donkey.

The people of Jerusalem sought to usher in a new rule, one inspired by the way of their ancestors. A rule in which God’s ways of freedom, peace and prosperity were felt by all. They welcomed a rule that would not prioritize the luxury of the few at the expense of the masses. They celebrated a rule that would turn the world upside down.

On Saturday hundreds of thousands of people showed up to turn the world upside down. We cried out against the senseless influence of the NRA that led to the suffering of so many. We refused to believe that chaos and fear should rule our streets or our schools. We believed that a new way, one marked by God’s peace, could be possible.

So we shouted:
No More Silence, End Gun Violence.
Save Us Now.

May we all begin Holy Week with this sort of Prophetic Hope. Jesus is coming. Liberation is happening. Cry out. The time has come to offer our prayers for revolution, healing, and restoration. The time has come to claim boldly what might be possible if God’s way of peace reigned on earth. .

This is what kin(g)dom looks like

Prayer: Hosanna, save us.

Reflection; What in your life, personal or public, is crying for revolution? What are you yearning to see change?

Art: Natalie at March for Our Lives Boston . Photo taken by James M Thomas

A study for JNicodemus visiting Jesus - Henry Osawa Tanner https://www.wikiart.org/en/henry-ossawa-tanner/study-for-nicodemus-visiting-jesus-1899

Jesus and the Powerful: Lenten Reflection (34)

Scripture for Today: Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 19:1-10, John 3:1-21

When I was a little girl I had a bad habit of taking things without asking. I’d sneak a cookie before dinner, borrow my mom’s shoes without checking with her, and even sometimes take five dollars from my dad’s wallet.

Looking back, I can see that I was more afraid of hearing “no” than I was of getting caught. As a child, “no” is your first experience of rejection or feeling  unworthy of the request you made. Rather than risk being (so I feared) devalued, I snuck behind my parents’ backs to get what I wanted.

As I read the Gospel stories for today I saw this same experience of hesitation and fear in Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion. Their approach of Jesus is drastically different than the hemorrhaging woman who pulled on his coat in the crowd, or the Syrophoenician woman who boldly challenged Jesus. Zacchaeus hides in a tree, Nicodemus comes at night, and the Centurion claims he “does not deserve” to have Jesus come to his home.

In some ways, I don’t blame them. Jesus clearly preferences those who are sickly, judged as sinners, or systematically marginalized by society. At one point he clarifies this preference by saying: “It is not the well that need a doctor but the sick.”

Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion were in no way sick.

As wealthy men of power they had spent their lives benefiting from economic and social systems. What’s more, they had likely used religious, political, and financial systems to oppress the very people to whom Jesus “proclaimed liberty,” and “set free.”

I imagine they thought Jesus would say no. No, you’ve already had your due. No, you’re not in need of me. No, you’ve got more than enough support already.

But that’s not what happened.

Jesus instead encounters each one of them with the same compassion he bestowed on those who were so visibly hurting. The vulnerability of these three men reveals deep places of pain, and Jesus, moved by their risk, comes to meet them. In doing so, he transforms the life of each man.

In communities of privilege, our conversations about ending oppression — specifically white supremacy — are targeted at ameliorating the pain of those who are most impacted. How can we, those who have been in power, adapt so that others’ lives are better? What do we need to do to “fix it?” How can we “solve the problem?” While we most certainly need to seek the liberation of those around us, it is equally important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we are sickly as well.

We are so burdened by the drive to be better that it leads to mental illness. We choose to work unbearably hard to sustain being the best, the wealthiest, the most respected — and in doing so we forfeit peace in our lives. We are numb and disconnected from our heart after years of avoiding the truth of how we treated people. We value thinness as if it was health and perpetuate practices that harm our bodies. We live in denial of the impact we have on others. We too are sickly and our world will never heal from a place of numbness, restlessness, and denial.

It seems that Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion knew they were sick. They knew they needed Jesus and they came, despite facing rejection. They came, not for the sake of others but because they needed to be set free. They came, risking their reputation of privilege for the chance to be seen, known by Jesus. And, from that place of humility and awareness emerged the willingness to be entirely transformed for the sake of others.

It is time that we come as well.

Prayer: Open me to feel the pain of oppression.

Reflection: Why is it easier for us to focus on the benefits of change to others than to ourselves? What do we gain by ignoring the way oppression impacts us? What might change if we were willing to acknowledge its impact on our lives?

Art: A study for Nicodemus visiting Jesus – Henry Osawa Tanner

Depiction of Jesus with the Woman at the Well. Photo Credit: http://www.heqigallery.com/gallery/gallery3/pages/6-SamaritanWomanAtTheWell.html

Gospel of Dignity: Lenten Reflection (33)

Scripture for Today: Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 5: 21- 34. John 8: 2-11 and John 12:1- 8

This post, originally written in 2014, still captures my feelings about what the Church could learn from Jesus and Planned Parenthood about honoring women. In ways it feels even more relevant given the #metoo movement. I made a few changes to the revised version; you can find the original here. 

In November of 2014 I traveled to East Africa with Planned Parenthood Global, the international division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to launch a program that will support local communities of advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in several countries in Africa.

The training team celebrates our hard work by having dinner together.
The East Africa training team celebrates a hard day of work by having dinner together.

While preparing for the training Jacob Okumo, my colleague from Tatua Kenya, asked me about my connection to Planned Parenthood. My eyes welled up as I told Jacob about how Planned Parenthood had been my primary healthcare provider when I was young. I grew up hearing sex had one place, in a heterosexual marriage. As a sexually active teen, trying to be responsible, I went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, STD tests, and annual exams. Planned Parenthood continued to support me through adulthood, providing me with exams when I was uninsured, even inserting my IUD.

At the opening of the initial training for the small group facilitators who would lead the training in Uganda, we answered the question, “Why do I care about sexual and reproductive health?” As we went around the table I heard stories of women who were fired for being pregnant, shamed for needing birth control, discarded for being sexually active. Many of the stories carried the same disturbing theme: as a woman in East Africa your worth was undeniably tied to your body.

This theme was incredibly disturbing but even more so was the realization that although I was raised in a very different context, this was my story too.

My first formal conversations about sexuality happened in the conservative Christian Church through a program called Sex, God, and Me (similar to True Love Waits, Love Matters, or Asitia). These programs teach that sex was intended for heterosexual marriage alone and any other sexual activity was sinful, shameful, and made us undesirable to partners in the future. One particular demonstration in the program has the facilitator glue two pieces of paper together and then make students rip it apart, showing that once you join yourself to someone you become forever marked by them and torn/dirtied for the rest of your life. I am sad to say that I not only listened to the message but passed it on to younger women.

Despite the fact that I intended to wait until marriage, I first had sex at 17. The combination of wanting to be liked, raging hormones, and attention from a popular older guy was too much; we ended up having sex one stormy afternoon in a car. Today I remember that day fondly, but at the time I thought the “loss” was pretty much the end of my life. I began having sex frenetically, with little concern to my partner or my own desire. Looking back I can see that the first five years of my indiscriminate sexual activity was a reaction to this idea that I had “lost it all.” It wasn’t until I was 24 that I began to think about sex in a positive light. Even now, at 30, I still struggle to be fully present to sexuality because I’m afraid that I will be seen as dirty and undesirable. I know that is a lie but the voices from our past are hard to release.

These voices rage in our U.S. culture. Mainstream culture may not demand abstinence but it encourages women to maintain rigid body standards in order to be valued: all the while being careful to maintain the impossible balance between being flirtatious but not “too promiscuous.” Salary scales enforce the belief that once you reach a certain age you should be at home with children, not competing for managerial positions with the men. Pop culture reinforces this by portraying single women as incomplete and unfulfilled. As a whole, these cultural rules prevent us from connecting with our true selves and celebrating whatever sexuality we feel we possess and instead shame us into silence and estrangement both within ourselves and the world at large.

What I saw in East Africa last week was that Planned Parenthood is healing this divide through the way they treat women. As a patient at Planned Parenthood I was often asked about my sexual past or history and never felt judged for the honest answers I provided. This platform encourages us to engage with our sexual partners, friends, and family members in a way that promotes open discussion and MUTUAL choice about the way we have sex. Finally, Planned Parenthood fights to extend this type of care to ALL women, regardless of race, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender identification. It is stated in their tagline: “Care. No matter what.” Planned Parenthood honors our wisdom, worth, and value as women by operating under the radical belief that we can be trusted to make good choices for our bodies: elevating us from a place of shame to value.

This elevation of women mirrors what we know of Jesus Christ’s interactions with women; rather than treat women as the “lesser” sex he spent time conversing with them and invited them to join him as leaders. His conversations with Mary and Martha appear innocuous today but in Christ’s time they were countercultural and a threat to the way men in power understood the role of women.

Even racier were his interactions with ‘scandalous women,’ such as his conversation with the woman at the well who is infamous for her many lovers. Here he offers us insight into his ability to see women as much more than their sexual past. Rather than focus his interaction with her on her sexual choices he instead engages with her on the topic of authentic worship and eternal life. He treats this woman’s sexual past in a similar way to the team at Planned Parenthood, a simple fact. Because of this he is able to move on to a more meaningful level of interaction with her and truly connect with her soul.

When it comes to treating a woman with dignity, the church can learn a great deal from Planned Parenthood. Conservative Christian communities continue to devalue women through the glorification of purity, lack of leadership opportunities, use of degrading language, and emphasis on the need to assume the role as mother if they are to be considered “of worth” to society. While progressive Christian communities have moved away from such practices, they fail to create a space in which people of faith can discuss sexuality in a healthy way. The silence cannot continue. It is time the church joins Planned Parenthood in promoting a culture of worth for women.

Imagine a church that brings God back into the bedroom by creating a space in which teens can talk about how to integrate sexuality and spirituality, a church that celebrates our bodies for their many facets, a church that offers women the tools to make decisions about their sex and sexuality without judgment. Imagine a church that elevates women as Christ did by paying women and men equally, by encouraging women leadership, and offering generous maternity leave. Imagine a church that leads us to a world in which women are honored for more than our bodies.

Prayer:  Open our eyes to the ways we participate in oppression.

Reflection: What values or opinions do I have about sexuality? How do they promote or deny the dignity of others?

Art: Depiction of Jesus with the Woman at the Well by He Qi  

Resources: Organize a conversation in your local community that creates a space for men and women to share their stories, struggles and hopes for how the church approaches sexuality. Click here to download a one-page guide to having these conversations in your community.

Utilize resources like the Universalist Unitarian Church’s “Our Whole Lives” or Planned Parenthood’s resources for educators to design a curriculum for sex education that works for your church.

Join the Praxis Community,  a community of faith-rooted leaders who believe God calls us all to build liberating and joyful communities. To this end we have dedicated ourselves to ending oppressive cultures and systems of economic and racial injustice by challenging dominant systems of power. Through participating in a shared rule of life centered around prayer, right-relationship, and prophetic action we hope to join in God’s movement of liberation. For more information email Natalie@EpiscopalCityMission.Org.