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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Love Is the Law

For a while now, I've been very lax in the laundry department in terms of ironing. This morning I realized my batik print tunic would need to be ironed if I wanted to wear it to church. It was under three t-shirts that also needed a press because I hadn't gotten them out of the dryer soon enough. Why not get them done too? So, I ironed out the wrinkles in my Love Is the Law t-shirt which I bought at the music event in downtown St. Paul after Gov. Dayton signed the same sex marriage bill into law. And I thought about the story behind the shirt while ironing, because ironing doesn't take a lot of brain activity.

Chan Poling, of the band The Suburbs, saw the phrase "love is the law" in a graffiti tag and liked the sound of it so he wrote a song for his band. Several years later it became the theme song for the marriage equality movement in Minnesota. Poling seemed to have this sense that this idea was significant, and perhaps under expressed, so was worthy of highlighting musically.

It certainly resonated this year. Not only in this campaign of course, for in many ways we hear of people's valuing of love, hopes that love would prevail, and stories of the power of love to restore, reconcile and heal. The thing is, that love is the law is not a new idea. It is at the core of what Jesus taught and lived. That popular culture comes up with this as a new idea, because it has not been manifested by the Church, points to a significant problem. Love for God, neighbor and self is the distillation of the Christian life. What would the world be like if love truly was the heart of faith and practice for Christians?

How did we get off track, distracted by behavioral control, dogma, social power, and so many other things?

It was then I thought of the kids on Wednesday night at church, how I talked about the temple King Solomon built before inviting them to use Legos to make part of that temple. Until 70 CE there was only one temple, that had significance for both Jews and Christians. Somehow, as Christianity separated from its roots in Judaism, and despite the biblical teaching about the people of the Church being the temple of the Holy Spirit, we started building many ornate worship spaces to be our temples. Money, status, stability, power--all of these help if one wants to build large centers for worship. And then the focus falls on the building, which becomes the church in the minds of many. Thus we forget that we as a community of the faithful are to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. We forget that love from God for the world is our missional identity and purpose.

The whole world is in need of the witness from the disciples of Jesus that we are called by love to love. We, as disciples, need to open our eyes to see how God is at work in this essential ministry, outside of, and even in spite of, the Church.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Milkweed and Monarchs

At first, they seemed harmless, those Common Milkweed plants in the 4' x 8' perennial bed. An occasional sprout would show up in the grass during my first few years here. And one year, the aphids attacked and sucked the life out of the whole bunch. Maybe that's when they became interested in taking over, some kind of milkweed evolution took place and activated an extensive root expansion and seed propagation program.

Just a few days ago, as I surveyed the milkweed-conquered territories of my yard, I thought about asking a master gardener for help in eradicating the plants. You might be wondering why I let them take over, while I am wondering how the previous owners/gardeners managed to keep them confined. My turn from accepting and managing the wily milkweed to considering its removal had a lot to do with the reason they're here in the first place. This year there are so few Monarch butterflies in my yard.

Let me take a moment to partially explain the expansion of the Common Milkweed into new territories around my house. The Monarchs lay their eggs on the tender leaves of new sprouts, or of older plants if no little ones are available. Thus, the onward march from that tenacious underground root system, springing up into baby plants would very quickly result in those plants being host to Monarch eggs. Yes, I did pull many of those and keep them alive in a vase until the eggs hatched (but the roots didn't go away). But there were many I let stand.

So, when the butterflies didn't return, the reason-for-being of the Milkweed for me, it led me to think I could regain some sense of order in my garden. I am fortunate in my neighbors because they have not strongly urged milkweed removal (yet)!

Yesterday, while harvesting a few tomatoes and some lovely raspberries, I spotted a mama Monarch (!) fluttering from plant to plant stopping to lay eggs (this is about a month later than usual). When I moved closer to watch I saw that her wings were faded, even nearly clear in spots, as a result of the long flight here from Texas. Sometimes she flopped over just a bit, but then righted herself and kept looking for the right plants in the tumult of my verdant gardens (everything does seem to grow exuberantly). Her doggedness over that long journey, finding my yard because her ancestors were born here, made me rethink how little effort by comparison I need to exert to keep these milkweed plants.

The Monarch butterfly population (state butterfly of Minnesota by the way) is at an all-time record low. This makes me sad. I've been hand-rearing some caterpillars every year so I get to see them transform via chrysalis into butterfly. Butterfly birthdays are wonderful, and I've been here for a lot of them. I just don't know how many more years we have.

For more information on Monarchs:

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Farmer Gene: Raspberries in the City

Ten years ago I moved into this house, anticipating a July raspberry harvest. Having enough room for my big dining room table somewhere near the kitchen inside and an existing raspberry patch outside being two reasons to buy this house. Sure, I'd picked berries before--wild strawberries in the ditch by my cousin's house when I was a kid, blackberries on an aunt's 40 acres in Wisconsin once (great jam, by the way), raspberries in another aunt's back yard in Duluth while fending off mosquitoes, blueberries and serviceberries in the Boundary Waters--but I'd never been the gardener for a 20x5 foot stretch of raspberries.

There were quite a few berries in 2003, so I asked my parents if they'd like to come over and pick some . My mom is a jam maker so this sounded great to her. That day I learned that her dad had a raspberry patch and he'd put on his farmer overalls, with a belt to hold the bucket handle, so he could go out and pick with both hands. Every year I'm out picking berries I think about my grandfather doing the same thing. I wonder if there's a farmer gene that gets passed from one generation to the next. When I was a teenager I got interested in our garden and my grandpa loaned me some of his Rodale magazines (organic gardening tips). There's something in me that helps me see the ripest berries, and even find them by touch alone, so I think about tuning sight to particular color, and touch to the just right softness, and maybe even smell to find those hidden berries. I learned pretty quickly that effective berry picking requires that one look at the plants from a variety of perspectives. It never fails; I think I've done a thorough job in a small area, move on, then look back and see raspberries I missed. There's my mini life lesson!

Ten years ago I didn't know much about tending a berry patch. Now I know there's a bit of work involved. After all the picking is done one waits for those fruit bearing canes to dry up just enough so they stand out in contrast to the new growth of next year's canes. Removing the dying ones makes room for strong new growth so that needs to be done in August or early September. In the early spring before any leaf buds open, I cut off about one-quarter of the cane from the top. I learned this a few years into my raspberry hobby and it increased my harvest...until the advent of the Japanese Beetles on the scene. Before things fill in too much there's some weeding to be done. Then, cheer on the pollinators! When the berries start ripening it is a daily task to keep up with the harvest, which becomes twice a day at the peak. One year I called on several people to come pick berries to take home, made two fresh glazed raspberry pies, and still had over eight gallon freezer bags full of deliciousness for jam and sorbet.

When I'm out harvesting this fabulous bounty in my Saint Paul neighborhood back yard I remember my dairy farming grandfather, I think about what it must be like to be a migrant farm worker working in fields all day instead of just for an hour, I see the variety of life that swirls around my berry patch and I am caught by the beauty of the aroma of ripening berries in the heat and sun.

Recently, my uncle and I were talking about what retirement could look like on a little hobby farm with some chickens, a big garden, and maybe a Dexter cow (he hadn't heard of that small breed) ... I think he wanted goats too. I think we both have that farmer gene.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Social Body, Family Values and Jesus

In a "profound, earthy and funny" (from the book blurb by Paul J. Griffiths) book--Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels--by Rodney Clap I find inspiration for this piece. This all started when I decided to read the whole book, having read a few chapters a few years ago. You know how that is. By the way, it's an excellent book and is still available; I just checked the Baker/Brazos website.

As the host of a house church with some participants who are new to taking the Bible seriously, weekly prayer and communion, I find myself (lifelong Christian) thinking deeply about how to communicate effectively. And so, when I read the following in Tortured Wonders I brought this into our discussion about a healing story in Luke the next Sunday. These two excerpts are central to this essay.
Unlike any known culture before it, the modern West has seen individual physical bodies as the basis of the social body. The individual is real and primary, the social body a derivative fiction. The modern West has, in essence and contrary to the apostle Paul, said that individuals as "hands" or "feet" are most themselves in isolation from any social body of which they may be members. Premoderns saw matters differently. The individual, inasmuch as such a creature could be conceived [emphasis mine], was preceded by and dependent on the social body. The whole person exited only in community (72).
When I introduced the healing story, I invited people to think about how this played out for the whole community, not just the individuals, how healing might have taken place in the social fabric. I am going to be pondering this for a while, remembering that many of the second-person pronouns in the New Testament are second-person plural--which we lose in the English translation, and in our individualist mindset. OK, back to the topic at hand.
But still I have caught a glimpse of what St. Augustine called concupiscence, the darkness of disordered desire which would make of the self a god and of all other creatures (and even of God Almighty) means or tools of the self's satisfaction and aggrandizement (67).
 My impression is that this "disordered desire" has primarily been identified in the sphere of human sexual relations, however, does it not make sense in terms of much of human failing in other spheres as well?

A great deal of Christian rhetoric makes the news when it addresses family values, the constitution of a family, the parenting of children and marriage. On one side, people argue on behalf of what is commonly referred to as a conservative agenda, countered on the other hand by a so-called progressive agenda.
A: Marriage and family look like this... vs
B: No, marriage and family look like this.
Taking the Bible seriously leads to a close reading of the whole text (from Lot to Abraham to David particularly) and not finding a lot that supports a definition of family values that "conservatives" would affirm. And then there's that troublesome story about Jesus in Mark 3:31-35 (NRSV):
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 
Proclamations from all sides of the family debate tend toward an expression of "concupiscence," in other words, what serves the individual self's satisfaction. Making biological/adoptive/chosen family a primary value apart from the will of God is a disordered desire. Echoing what Clapp says in terms of Christian spirituality not wanting to erase all differences between person (76); neither do followers of the Way of Jesus want to deny the existence and importance of families (variously defined). We are called to rightly order our desires (to use Augustinian language) and to recall that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13 about the love that is to be found in Christian worshiping communities--which then would facilitate that love in all relationships, including marriage and family.

Because we post-moderns have lost this rootedness in communal ties in which premodern cultures were steeped, we desperately seek for alternatives and elevate them beyond the importance that is rightfully theirs. Nations, sports teams, corporations, families, political parties, etc--all are found wanting as social bodies to convey identity. At the same time, modern spirituality focuses on self-realization or self-fulfillment, which "in the terms of Christian spirituality [is] perversely making the fall its ideal. It puts forth the alienated and amputated individual as the highest and healthiest human condition. And--seen with Christian eyes--that is an illusion. The amputated limb is a dying limb" (Clapp, 77).

Death is all around us: addiction, violence, greed, species extinction, suicide, hatred.
For us to choose life, we must re-member the social body, and recognize that our choice for life in God's realm is a communal reality.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

2013 Clergy Session Prayer

The context for this prayer: I have been the "shepherd" for candidates for ordained ministry during their interviews. When those who have been approved come before the Clergy Session at our United Methodist Annual Conference, the shepherd is called upon to offer a prayer before we vote in affirmation of the recommendations by the Board of Ordained Ministry (which comes from that day of interviews noted above). This is the prayer I wrote this year.

As your children, friends and partners in the gospel by the grace of baptism and sanctifying grace, O Lord we come to you in prayer for ourselves, for all your creatures and for your world.

Called and gifted for your service, we see the intersections of powers and principalities that cut and break lives and communities: greed, selfishness, lust for power, racism, sexism, hatred, violence and deception. Grant that we may participate in your healing and renewing of all creation, trusting that with you all things are possible.

Whether in small towns or large cities we see the shattering of your will in creation and blessing of all you have made. And we see the power of grace in enabling us to choose the good in so many ways: the countless people who deliver Meals on Wheels, who tutor in schools, who march and pray and write for justice and peace, who clean up the neighborhood park, who pray with their neighbors in illness or tragedy, who plant and share the abundance of their gardens, who understand their daily work as a vocation in service to you no matter the status conferred by the world. In these and more, your light shines as from many cities on many hills.

Bless these who stand before us, with grace in commissioning and ordaining, that they may join in your healing work and in proclaiming the good news of your realm that is both a present and hoped-for reality. In their strengths may they serve the flourishing of your kingdom with humility. In their weakness, may your strength carry them and make known your love and power more and more.

"Lead us in being a people that follow after the things that make for peace, love and unity. Pour your love into our lives, such that we shall love all and desire the good of all" (Margaret Fell Fox, 17th-century Quaker leader).


Friday, April 26, 2013

One of those awkward moments

I just had one of those experiences when people in the room are saying, "White people are always.... You know, they're white so..... Why do they (white people) do that thing.....?"

The thing is, I'm Anglo. So it was a little odd. Due to my education and penchant for reading, I am aware of white privilege as something I get to walk around in like a protective shield or mobile force field. I am reading The New Jim Crow and I get so angry and discouraged at the same time that I can only read short sections before I need a break. I am not saying this to make myself out some kind of saint, or someone who deeply understands what it means to be Black in the USA. This is not about me wanting to take on some hip hop identity or co-opt Black culture....or save anybody.

Since I am just as culpable, take for instance what I think of white boys listening to misogynistic rap with the bass amp making the car bounce and sounding echoes off the houses on the road.... To visit that judgment for a moment, they could've picked country music, plenty of patriarchy and non-feminist texts there, so why the rap industrial complex? Maybe it speaks to something that they need, besides the overt wealth and hyper masculinity.

I just don't think we are going to get anywhere--from any 'side'--if we talk about those (identifier) people instead of meeting up with a person who has all sorts of complexity, including the construct of race. Or age, or immigration status, or gender, or sexual orientation, or weight, or education, or class, and so on. This is not some new mega-idea of course, but each of us can take ideas in our lives when they become needed and give them substance by pulling them into praxis.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Before you read the words below, which I wrote in December, I want anyone who reads this to know that my family and friends have been incredibly helpful, above and beyond what I have ever done for anyone else, so this is in no way a criticism of anyone in my circle of family and friends.

Unemployment and the Safety Net

As of July 1 I became one of the unemployed, but I don't know if I am even one of the statistics because my work was not for one of the companies or organizations that provides for unemployment insurance. How does anyone know to count me?

I was aware that the change was coming and had been looking for a new job, albeit with the constraints of spending time preparing for the transition at my current position and having spring/summer yard and garden tasks at home. My first withdrawal from some retirement savings to get me through the first few months was less than I anticipated due to some rules about the account...and it turned out that it was only going to be a loan which I immediately had to begin repaying. "Well,"I thought, "then I'll get some freelance work to supplement," except that the first option didn't pan out and the second didn't have the demand for which I hoped.

I immediately purchased a "bridge plan" for health insurance which didn't cover any pre-existing conditions, but would provide major medical coverage. This meant I began paying full price for my two prescriptions and stayed away from the clinic because anything covered under that three months would then be excluded if I bought another three-month policy. Luckily I was healthy and didn't fall from any ladders. I also continued to carry insurance on my car and my home because it seemed like the right thing to do, even though I wasn't earning any money.

You might ask where my emergency savings (not from retirement, which carries an early withdrawal penalty) were? Single, homeowner, non-profit employment, paying higher portion of health insurance and medical expenses, my car died a few years before I thought it would and I needed a reliable replacement...enough said!

Being optimistic at the beginning of the job search, having gotten affirmation from a career counselor, I didn't think to apply for assistance from my county or state because it wouldn't be long before I was back to work. It turns out I was wrong. In the fall I applied for SNAP (food stamps) and Medical Assistance and they have been life-savers. I receive $200 a month for food and have my medical and dental paid for 100%. It's great to not have those prescriptions come in around $100 each month with no income.

Now I'm ready to see if there's anything else the government can provide since it's December and it seems there are fewer positions I qualify for on the job posting site. Wait a minute, some might say. How about selling that expensive house and moving in with family or friends? Due to the timing of my need for a home, this house cost me more than I can sell it for and I don't know where I'd get the thousands to pay off the mortgage. I have listed a room for rent via an agency that screens potential renters, with no success so far. (In March I did receive energy assistance to pay for my winter heating bills, after applying in early December.)

Why rely on the government (aka taxpayers) when you have family and friends?! I have gotten some assistance from family and friends with some household supplies (which are not covered by SNAP). Meanwhile, I have noticed that some of my friends or family members continue to pay college tuition for their offspring, take international vacations, make home improvements, buy new electronics...and pay the taxes that provide the safety net I need right now. Replacing the income from a full-time, mid-level management job isn't easy.

Would you suggest they forego some of the luxuries and give the money to me instead? That this is how our country should operate? That this mutual support is not a part of the deep values of the U.S. is evidenced by the following: private property (including yards) that can be posted "no trespassing," the right to bear arms being closely tied to the right to protect one's home (a recent shooting of two teens breaking in to a home in MN as evidence), most churches teach tithing (giving 10%) but average closer between 1 and 2% of members' incomes--even a spiritual claim can't overcome the sense that what is mine is mine alone.

And yet, hurricanes, floods, fires and tornados engender outpourings of generosity...for a time. Perhaps we can sustain giving for a moment or an acute crisis, but not for the less visible chronic crises. Since 2008 unemployment has been dire and yet there are no huge public fund raisers nor mobilizations of support. That's why we need a civic, neutral, accessible,  non-personal method of financial assistance so that leaning on friends and family isn't the only option. I will admit that until this year I didn't have an empathetic sense for the difficulty and insecurity that plague so many people in this country. When I think about just this past week, with one more rejection e-mail that was like hitting the wall, and multiply that by all the people looking for work, that's a lot of pain and struggle.

A common suggestion is that people should work rather than receive public assistance. I have wrestled with that, but it's tough to figure out how to come out ahead in the trade-offs. If I earn some money to stretch my retirement withdrawals, once it gets over $700 a month I would lose Medical Assistance and have to pay for my own insurance again, and get back in the realm of prescription co-pays, exclusions for pre-existing conditions and deductibles. If my income from some part-time work would get up around $1200-1400 a month then I would not qualify for food stamps. By earning something I would end up spending more. Is there a calculator that can figure out the best course of action?

Meanwhile, if you hear of a good full-time job that'll cover my house, car, food, clothing, medical and taxes let me know. And I am willing to ride my bike to work...