Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mosquito Love

"Mentholatum" Miami University LIbraries
An unpleasant little poem
about an unpleasant little bug
dedicated to the Holy Spirit
who is on my last nerve.

I have wondered for a while
why God made mosquitos
They serve no purpose, save
irritation
on every level
the incessant whine of a skeeter
whirling about
one's body
the blood sucking
(and disease passing
sometimes mosquitos mean death)
the welts
left 
behind
one
by
one
the itch that lasts
for days
the way a perfectly good porch sitting
can be ruined at dusk
by
one
pesky
skeeter
intent on sucking the life out
of a perfectly good day
literally
and even if you kill the damn thing
you're spilling your own blood
seeing as how it just gorged
on your flesh
why on earth, God?

and then it came to me in prayer
this week
the mosquito
is the image of God
biting after us
in our complacency
we are led beside still waters
where
mosquito
larvae
thrive
and at dusk
when it seems we might settle
in
for a while, anyway
out come the mosquitos
to bite
and whine
and nettle
and unsettle

nothing like a mosquito
to get me out of my porch chair

I met an older pastor last week
didn't even get his name
nor did he ask mine
but we talked of something or other
and I said
"yeah, God is a jerk"
he said, "I like your style."

you want proof I'm right?
the mosquito
that's what.
the Holy Spirit lately
been whining
biting
welting
itching
irr-
i-
tating
knocking me off my porch.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dry and Thirsty Work

I went to church this morning, as I most times do. I work for three churches, you know, so I'm usually at one or two of them on any given Sunday. I serve in those spaces with delight and joy--I surely do. Today was a communion Sunday, and I poured out the grape juice for our people like Jesus himself was with us. The blood of Christ shed for you. And for you. And yes, even for YOU.

But then I had a little extra time today, as I almost never do, and the timing worked out that I could go to a church to simply BE and worship a while. Beloved Community in Trenton takes me in every now and then. (Beloved worships on Sundays at 11:30am at 471 Parkway Avenue, Trenton, NJ with the Rev. Toby Sanders) They welcome me and my sorrows and joys like I'd been there last week, praying, singing, preaching, praying. And there a Word pierces my heart and God only knows what that Word will do over the next few months until I sit with them again. Oh, I wept in church today...

One of my greatest fears and regrets about ordination is the loss of my church membership. In my tradition, when a pastor is ordained as a teaching elder, they are no longer a member of the local church that has cared and nurtured them through the process. No, they are now accepted as a member of the Presbytery, a regional body constituted of teaching elders and ruling elders from the various nearby churches. We worship together a few times a year, that Presbytery body, but it is a constantly shifting membership, with ruling elders coming and going as often as they are commissioned by their local churches. Presbytery membership, however it might have been conceived, is no substitute for the loss of one's local church membership. And serving as pastor is not the same as being a member, not by any stretch of the imagination.

This pastoring gig, a lot of times, is dry and thirsty work in a dry and dusty land, and if I am not careful, I can give away my last cup of water without knowing where I will get more.

Oh I have my spiritual directors-one Christian, one Muslim. I have an Executive Presbyter, who cares for me in spectacular ways--she prays for me often, I know that. I've got a therapist--and God bless HIS patient soul, that's for sure. I've got supervising pastors and colleagues coming out of my ears with this collaborative work I'm doing.

Not naming names, but this could be them.
I have colleagues in the West Jersey Presbytery whom I adore with all my heart. I won't name names, because it won't help their cause, but they know who they are. We break bread together, and laugh, and laugh, and talk, and pray, and laugh. They fill me with joy in the Lord.

One night a few years ago, I was running late for a Presbytery meeting. My friends saved me a seat near them in the back--we are like little children with the twitter and the facebook and the jokes. Most of us are newcomers to this Presbytery, if not to ministry. Picture your teenagers in the balcony and it's something like that. We take Presbytery seriously, don't get me wrong, we just take ourselves with a grain of salt. 

Well, they saved me a seat, but it was in the middle of the pew. I knew I'd have to crawl over people or empty out half the pew to get to it, and that seemed disruptive. I sized up the situation and saw that there was an open window in the narthex right above my saved seat. So I tossed my backpack over the ledge and climbed over myself. Plopping down next to a startled colleague, I held out my hand and said, "I'm Katie Mulligan, nice to meet you."

He looked me up and down, took my hand doubtfully, and said, "I know who you are. I'm _________." We'll I had just plopped down next to one of our most proper and conservative pastors. And that's saying something, because we Presbyterians are a dour lot. My friends snickered at the whole situation, and to this day, they tell me they'll leave a window open for me. I love me some Presbytery.

Oh I love these people I see every few months, and I know that window is always open. But it's the day to day that gets me. My cup runneth over and then it runs dry.

Once, a dear friend came to visit me on a weekend. Sunday morning she decided to come to church with me, where I was working. Bright and early she rose to make the coffee and an egg sandwich, and she made one for me too. Throwing open the curtains she sang out, "This is the day that the Lord has made!!!" And I mumbled from my pillow, "Yeah, yeah, let us rejoice and all that." 

My friend, undaunted, handed me my coffee and said, "Isn't it a beautiful day! How lovely it will be to worship together again!" And I said sourly, "Friend, this is not worship for me, this is work."

"Kathryn Mulligan!" she yelled. "You take that back!" And she took my coffee cup and slammed it on the counter. Only this friend could mother me like that, and I got out of bed obediently, drank my coffee, and went to worship-work with her. She is both a morning person AND not a pastor and so worship wasn't to me what it was to her. This is the way of things.

Here, I give you "Raven, the acid bath princess of darkness" lip synching to Evanescence's "Going Under". I am a morning person like this.





It is dry and thirsty work, this pastoring business. My cup runneth over and then it runs dry.

So I go, sometimes, to this Beloved Community, and I WORSHIP there, and I leave full.

Today the Rev. Toby Sanders preached on Fulfilled Dreams and Promises from Genesis 46:
So Israel took his journey with all that he had, and he came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. Then God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am."
I wish you'd heard that sermon, that Word he preached that pierced my heart and made way for the Spirit to move through dry and dusty places in my soul. Here's a little taste of that sermon, although I'll carry the whole of it around for a while...

To be human is to have dreams
and to be human is to have broken dreams
and to be human is to have fulfilled dreams
all in the same breath...

Indeed, the very way we breathe is a grasping after God
...in the simple act of breathing
you realize the promise of God
which is abundant life, eternal life...

this is the nature of life
we are always in between
brokenness and fulfillment... 

You've got to go past the promise
to get to the purpose
Don't be afraid to go past the promised land into Egypt
because I have made provision for you there...

Sometimes we are healed by those who have been hurt by us
Sometimes we are blessed by those we have cursed...

And then he closed with the next two verses from Genesis:
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’
I can't do it justice this sermon, this Word. But his words brought me back to a night long ago in a church sanctuary. A night I poured out fear and poison that was killing my soul, and I called on God as witness to my rage, and we held court right there for someone who never got his. I conjured up that man too, and I wouldn't be surprised if he woke up that night in a cold sweat, coming face to face with what he had done.

I made my own covenant with God that night, that I would come when called. And that night God promised that out of fear and death would come joy. God has never lifted that call, and I insist on my joy. It is an uneasy alliance between two stubborn parties.

In the winter this year, I had trials and tribulations coming out my ears. I wrote about grief all 46 days of Lent--every day, because my grief was unrelenting. I held tight to that covenant. Out of this WOULD come joy--I have been promised.

Out of THIS season of grief, there will come joy.

This winter I marked that covenant with a tattoo. I started with a black widow spider. When I was a child we had nests of black widows in our house. I was convinced that one bite meant a slow, agonizing death. And there are ways in which I was already dying that death in those days.

The body of the spider is the body ALSO of the 8th note--a light and airy note of joy that has been promised as surely as death, coming straight out of the spiders I so feared. I've made my peace with these 8-legged creatures. It helps that poisonous spiders are much rarer in New Jersey than California. Perhaps I am in the promised land after all...

Oh, I wept in church today. It is dry and dusty, but my cup runneth over. Thank you, Pastor.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rest in the Unrest

A communal mural painted at the Wild Goose Festival 2014,
held in Hot Springs, NC. A sign next to the mural invited
passersby to paint on the mural; paint and brushes were
left out for our use. The rain blurred and ran the paint,
mud mixing with the colors.
So, it's been almost three years now since I left my PhD program and began to think about what I was going to do that didn't involve 5 more years of writer's block and student loans. I left my tiny church at about the the same time--my last Sundays were Advent in 2011. Both the tiny church and I were sad and frustrated at my leaving; I preached the four weeks in advent using the four chapters of the book of Jonah. It was fitting, somehow, that bitter sweetness of Jonah's fish tale.

I cast about, trying to figure out what would pay the bills and be at least moderately entertaining. I thought about several things like waiting tables and retail--at that particular moment there weren't any pulpits open nearby, and I was unwilling to relocate my children. So that left me in a bit of a bind--more and more as the bills piled up, I felt like Jonah in the belly of a whale. It was an uncomfortable place, to be sure.

And then out of the boredom and anxiety and despair, I began to get creative. By the end of January 2012, I'd started to get a picture of what my ministry might look like: it would be a God-awful, tangled mess of interlocking ministries, overlapping and intertwining like a kitten with a ball of yarn. I wrote a blog post about it, Called to This Leaky Apartment:
There is a wild freedom in tentmaking. I have had the freedom to preach how the Spirit moves me these last three years. I listen to my colleagues talk about not being able to say what needs to be said, and honestly when you're working 1/3 time with no benefits, that's not really a concern. I've had the freedom and flexibility to raise my children, fail at a PhD program, read and write extensively. I don't think people should go into tentmaking because there aren't options--I think people should consider it because it's good for the soul.
Two months later, some of the projects I'd been working on came together, and I updated with The Apartment Still Leaks:
That's all. As I look at it on paper, it all seems much busier than I was last year, but all of the pieces fit together, in and around my parenting needs, and within a few miles of my home. It feels good to be settling into this space. It's great to pay the bills. And while it is not a traditional pastoral "call" I nevertheless believe I am called to each of these pieces and to the whole. 
For the record, this does not resemble what I thought I'd be doing after seminary. Not in the slightest.
Well, it's been a little over two years since I wrote those posts. I moved to a house where the roof doesn't leak--and I thank God for that every time it rains here. I've lived in a lot of leaky houses, and one's attitude about rain changes significantly depending on whether or not your roof leaks.

These days I'm doing youth and young adult work for 3 churches still. I continue as a chaplain at Rider University. We've started a young adult ministry that is growing. I've started taking on seminary students from Princeton to help with our programming, but also as a part of our ministry--to mentor and train new pastors and educators. Believe me, our youth and young adults do the training and mentoring.

Our Love of God (L.O.G.) retreat program grew in the last two years incredibly. We graduated a large senior class this year, and we'll be rebuilding with our younger students this year. So much room for growth and change!

I'm still preaching when I can. My writing goes up and down, depending on the inspiration and whether or not I'm too dang tired to move at the end of the day. The Art Journal project ended shortly after I wrote about it--mostly because each of the daily posts took a couple of hours to complete, and it turns out when one is working full time that those hours are at a premium.

I did offer spiritual direction with a few people, but I found quickly that my work required me to spend the energy I had for that with the adults involved in my programs--as much or more than the youth, we adults are in need of spiritual direction and prayer!

Overall, what we've created is a collaborative youth and young adult ministry, growing in the cracks of the sidewalk between three churches and a university. Some of our students are directly tied to the churches that support us, but many more have no idea who even hosts this thing. We've been calling it a Ministry of Many, or sometimes Holy Imagination, or sometimes just Youth Group/L.O.G. We just got funding for part of this work for another three years, and that funding shifts the center of gravity of our work to more urban churches in this part of New Jersey. It's going to be an exciting year ahead of us, and I can't wait to see how it turns out!

My work this year has included time spent with UMIO (United Mercer Interfaith Organization), including participating in prayer vigils for the people who have been murdered in Trenton this year. It's a lot of people for our little city. Some of our youth live close to where the murders have occurred. We are wrestling with how to be present and useful in this time and place.

Frankly, I am a bit daunted by the work ahead of me/us. Several times in this last year I have been tempted to flee the scene, fly the coop, do a bunk. This is messy work, full of personalities and frustration. I feel a call to justice in this work that borders on self-righteousness--and then tips all the way over the cliff. I often lack the patience and love to have these conversations around race, gender, class, money, sexuality, and culture.

Roots of a tree (or maybe a few trees)
along the French Broad River in Hot Springs, NC
I confess putting down roots does not come easy to me. Settling in to a community requires a giving over of oneself, a surrender to place, a sacrifice of one's own good for a community's good. Does that sound drastic? But I know that I have spent 8 years since I left California avoiding that commitment, never sure of what is coming next, never quite finding the solid ground to settle into, never willing to settle into unstable ground. Every time I hang my pictures I have to move again. Every time. This last move (my 6th home in 8 years), I didn't hang pictures for two years. Finally in March I pounded some nails into the wall and did the deed. I have my fingers crossed that we can stay here a bit--why don't you cross yours too, while we're at it.

In 2010, while still at Tiny Church, I preached a Pentecost sermon, Burning Bushes and Other Such Foolishness:
Let us begin with sneaky. Burning bushes, the quiet love of a friend, tiny flowers in a place they should not be, a small chapel in the woods, a small act of kindness that causes a person to pause. The way a phrase floats on the wind to hit our ear in the exact right way, and then stays with us for days and years to come. Indeed, the way one word might define an entire decade or even a lifetime. My word has been “rootless”, and is perhaps now “longing”. What is yours? What one word frames these questions for you: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” What is your burning bush? Where do you remove your shoes in reverence? How and why do the words “I am who I am” settle over you? In what place of indescribable significance do you see the presence of God? 
I was reminded of these words this last weekend at the Wild Goose Festival as I contemplated the possibility of a job description that had floated across my social media recently. It was sort of a tailor made dream job, but it would mean I would have to move. It would mean walking away from this ministry I have been working on for two years. And I'm not ready to do that.

So here I am, left with a distaste for rootlessness and an incredible longing for community. And I am left with the anxiety that if I settle down my roots and commit to this community that it will be like hanging the pictures, and I will have to move again. This is how it goes for us humans, isn't it? Fear of rejection leads us to walk away before we can be rejected--better, it seems, to stay rootless than to have deep roots cut out from under us. And yet, and yet, that incredible longing to belong here--to settle slowly and carefully into a place and a people who will nourish me when roots are cut--I am called to that too.

I've learned so well that God laughs at mortal plans. I know better than to say that this is where I will be forever--the second that comes out of my mouth is the beginning of the end. I was telling a friend yesterday that while I know I need to plant my feet and do some heavy lifting work-wise, I was a bit leery, as the ground beneath me is constantly shifting. But I was reading a bit of Kierkegaard's essay Either/Or a while back, and in the Seducer's Diary I found this passage:
I have always loved, on a moonlit night, to lie out in a boat on one of our lovely lakes. I take in the sails and the oars, remove the rudder, stretch out full-length, and gaze up into the vault of heaven. When the boat rocks on the breast of the waves, when the clouds scud before the strong wind so that the moon vanishes for a moment and then reappears, I find rest in this unrest. The motion of the waves lulls me, their lapping against the boat is a monotonous cradle-song. The swift flight of the clouds, the shifting light and shadow, intoxicate me so that I am in a waking dream. Thus no, too, I lay myself out, take in the sails and rudder; longing and impatient expectation toss me about in their arms; longing and expectation become more and more quiet, more and more blissful, they fondle me like a child; the heaven of hope arches over me; her image floats by me like the moon's, indistinct, blinding me now with its light, now with its shadow. How enjoyable thus to splash up and down on a stormy lake--how enjoyable to be stirred in oneself.
So it's been two years and the pictures are hung. I actually am growing two plants now. As long as I can, I will stay here in this place and love the people in this community. And perhaps in the possibility of finding rest in the unrest, I might trust God's inscrutable plans enough to settle my roots deep and wide, risking the pain that comes when the roots are cut.

After all, how enjoyable it is to be stirred in oneself.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Joyful Submission, Part Deux

There is an easing of tension in my soul today, because...

...This afternoon my church denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), voted to approve two measures at our General Assembly in Detroit, concerning same gender marriages.

Earlier, I posted this on Facebook:
ai yi yi. I don't have the stomach to watch another GA debate marriage. I'll check back when the youth mailing is done.

But I am a worm, and not human;  
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me; 
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 
‘Commit your cause to the Lord;
let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’ 
~psalm 22

So I finished the mailing (thank you, JoAnn), and as I was addressing envelopes and writing little notes to students, the news came back from GA that the overtures regarding same gender marriage had passed General Assembly. Hallelujah!!

1) An authoritative interpretation (AI) of our Book of Order, amending the Book of Worship to allow teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders (aka pastors) to perform same gender marriages in states where they are permitted by civil law. The text of 10-03 can be found here, although I don't swear this is the final language as I am not present in Detroit.

This is a "freedom of conscience" ruling, which allows pastors and churches to decide for themselves whether they will be involved in same gender marriages. As always we retain the freedom to officiate a marriage or not, based on our evaluation of the circumstances. 

Authoritative interpretations take effect immediately and do not need ratification by the presbyteries. Effective immediately Saturday, after the close of General Assembly, pastors in the PC (USA) may officiate same gender weddings in states where it is legal without fear of reprisal or recrimination from ecclesial courts. Hallelujah!

2) The General Assembly also passed an amendment to the Book of Order, modifying the definition of marriage. It used to say marriage should be between a man and a woman; if the amendment is ratified it will soon say "between two person" without reference to gender identity (claimed, perceived, assigned, or otherwise). (Update: language stating "traditionally between a man and a woman" would not be binding, but will be present.)


Amendments require ratification by a majority of our (173?) presbyteries. The presbyteries will cast their votes over the next year. If ratified, this amendment would take effect in two years about a year (again, I am not a policy wonk, so feel free to correct). This means that although the General Assembly has approved the change in definition, it is not currently in effect and cannot be acted on.

The Authoritative Intepretation, however, means that regardless of whether the definition is altered, pastors may perform same gender marriages in states where civil law permits.

I did not think this would happen--maybe ever. I had become very cynical from watching the last two General Assemblies. There will be much analysis done over what changes in our church allowed this to happen at this time, but I give thanks to God and to the commissioners who have opened new doors for our ministries.

It used to be like this:

"Hi. I'm thinking about God a lot lately and thought maybe I'd come to church."
"Wow, that's great. We meet Sunday at 11am. Let's get coffee this week."
"My partner is thinking of coming too."
"Great! We are an open and affirming church!"
"We've been thinking about getting married in the church, actually."
<pause>
"Oh. I can't do that. I mean, we're working on it. And I have some colleagues in xyz denomination who will gladly officiate."
<pause>
"I see. That's...sort of distasteful."
"It is, isn't it."
<pause>
"Well, I'll think about it."

So now we can just say, "Great! Let's meet when you're ready to talk more about marriage!"

There is an easing of the tension in my soul today because the last legal barrier to tending to lgbtq folks' pastoral concerns has been dismantled. We just can be pastors through all of our people's life transitions. Nobody has to ask me to risk my livelihood for their own marriage. We can simply pastor. This doesn't mean we'll be perfect pastors to lgbtq folks (we have a LONG way to go with trans folk). But it means there's one less structural barrier/excuse.

There is an easing of the tension in my soul today because the last legal barrier to my own same gender relationships is gone. I can date freely and do not have to worry about whether I will ever have to lose my ordination because I am partnered with a woman.  For a single, cat lady like me, who knows if this will ever be relevant to me. But gone is any need to have a conversation about the loss of my ordination if I should happen to fall in love with a fabulous woman.

Two years ago, when we approved the ordination of non-celibate lgbtq persons, I wrote a blogpost titled "Joyful Submission". I think that post explains the easing of tension and the reclamation of trust better than I can say it today, so go read that. But here is a piece of it:
And then after the presbytery meeting where I was received as an inquirer, I was asked to sign a code of conduct. It was required of all pastors, candidates and inquirers under care of the presbytery. Mostly this was a formality--a piece of paperwork that had been forgotten in the process. I should have signed it before I was presented to the presbytery or at least been allowed to consider it. The last item on this fairly standard code of conduct was a clause which stated that I would not participate in or condone homosexual activity. 
This brought me up short. I was married to a man, and only had the vaguest inkling of my own queerness--it just wasn't something I thought about in relationship to myself. But my oldest, closest friend is a lesbian. And many of the youth I worked with identified as queer in some way. I very nearly refused to sign that code of conduct, but I also refused to walk away from this call. Truthfully, I did not grow up in the church, and I had no idea that unmarried, sexually active individuals could not be ordained as an elder, deacon, or minister. It sat wrong with me. I had just become an inquirer, and I suddenly realized that this church was not what I thought it was. In some very deep way my trust with this church was fractured, and the peaceful connection with God that I had discovered became fraught with tension, rebellion, dislike, and the desire to run.
and this...
The tension of being at odds with this denomination I love so very much did not ease. The discussions about sexuality have been difficult. The rage I feel when same gender love is equated to pedophilia is something I can't describe. And I have been shaped by that. My spiritual practices have been shaped around the need to rebel against what is not God in the midst of the church--this deliberately narrow heterosexual framework imposed upon every member.
and finally this...
The passing of 10A has returned the possibility of building trust with the church and her people. I felt today, as I was walking, a great deal of joy at the possibilities for the church and queer folk. But deeper within I could feel the Spirit moving again peacefully, in a way I have not felt since 2005. I no longer am living under threat of shame and discipline. I can risk again deep vulnerability with the people of this church. 
For six years I have submitted to the church and to people, and it has damaged me in ways I hope I can repair. The passing of 10A returns my submission to Christ. In a way that was previously only possible by leaving this church, this church has restored my faith. My words here fail to express this fully, but I have been liberated from a deep pain, and I thank you. 
Oh, thank you, my dear church! What a gift you have given me today!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father God

Sunday, June 15, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

A diorama of Genesis 1
Scripture Reading: Genesis 1-2:4
Audio of the sermon can be found here: Father God

A quick note: this is not a hardball sermon taking down the assumed masculinity of God. For that you can see, like, the rest of my blog. But today I spoke out of love for the complicated men I love. Happy Father's day to my father, and to the father of my children!

Today is a very complicated day in the life of the church. As I sat down to think through my options for preaching, I was overwhelmed by the choices—sometimes I think we really believe that we ourselves are God the Creator, and that we can fabricate time out of nothing! And so on this day we pack in Trinity Sunday, Father’s Day, and the entire chapter of Genesis 1, complete with the 7th day of rest (which we rarely take for ourselves)! It is also, in an important sense, the beginning of our church year. After Lent, then Easter, then the Ascension of Jesus to Heaven, then the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the story is complete and told (in one sense), and we begin afresh today with “ordinary time.”

It will be quiet in ordinary time, at least these first few months. Because it is also becoming summer in New Jersey. Schools are out this week or next, businesses have moved to summer hours, people are traveling extensively. For those of us here on the east coast, where seasons drive the daily rhythms of our lives, the summer marks a significant break in a culture of relentless drive and pressure—those of you who come from other places might notice this about the northeast more than those of you who grew up with it. Summer here is like a release valve—like popping the cork off a champagne bottle. For the children it is like all year we have been blowing up the balloon, and then suddenly we let it go fly about whooooshhhhhhhhhhhethbtthbttbtth….

Oh I could go on and on about this seasonal change and what it means for us in the church, but I think a long sermon on resting for the Sabbath might actually put some of you to sleep!

The Trinity, then? Father, Son, Holy Spirit? Did you come here this morning looking for a theological treatise on the interpenetration of the Trinity or the sketchy scriptural merit of the Trinity itself? Did you come hoping for new analogies to help you explain the Trinity to your already stressed out mind? The Trinity is like forms of water—ice, liquid, steam, but all still water. Or nowadays we favor a gender neutral Trinity of Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer—and oh TRUST that messing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit language causes dissension and complaint in the church! As one grouchy conservative said once, “If we’re going to just pick three things at random and assign them as characteristics of the Trinity, why not just say ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors?’” And why not, indeed? For some the language of the Trinity is as deadly serious as Ro Sham Bo. And for others, less interested in dissecting paradox, the Trinity is a playground game for theologians with extra time on their hands. If you have questions about the Trinity, please do go see Pastor Nina; she is back from Canada this week!

But today is Father’s Day, and my heart settled here as I prepared for preaching. It is a complicated day for so many of us, filled with all the traps of a lifetime of absence and presence. In my social media spaces, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day rival one another for the most volatile conversations, filled with all the love and vitriol we reserve for our most intense pain and joy. My heart settled here, I think, because my relationships with my own father and with the father of my children are complicated, and sometimes painful. And yet I am grateful for their presence in my life, for the way they have shaped me and my children, for the efforts they have put out, and for the obvious love they have for their children.

Robert Dykstra, a seminary professor of mine, writes and speaks about men and masculinity a fair amount. In class one day he said, “If you want to see grown men cry, get them talking about their fathers.” Today’s complicated set of possibilities for preaching reminded me of the complicated set of possibilities for fathers, and so I settled here on Father’s Day.

Did you listen to the entirety of our Genesis reading? In our traditional rendering of God, many of us look to this Creator of all time and matter as the Father God. I’m not here to argue feminism this morning—although I’ll gladly do that over coffee with any interested parties. But I think looking at Genesis 1 with this lens gives us insight into what we expect of fathers (and why they often fall so short of those expectations! And perhaps why God, as Father, falls so short of our expectations!).

On the first day, God made light & darkness, night & day.

On the second day, God built a dome out of nothing to separate the sky from the waters below.

On the third day, God created the oceans and the continents. And also (because channeling all the water didn’t fill the day), God made all the plants & trees too.

On the fourth day, God made the sun and the moon and all the stars. As we are finding out just how many gazillion stars are in the sky, it is no wonder it took God a whole day to do this!

On the fifth day, God made all the things that swarm the seas and the skies. Sea monsters and chickens, ALL THE THINGS!

On the sixth day, God made all the livestock and wild things that creep on the ground—lions and tigers and bears, oh my! And goats. And snakes. ALL THE THINGS!

And then, apparently because God had extra time on his hands that sixth day, God made humans, and gave them dominion over all creation. And what a disaster THAT has turned out to be! There are days when I think God should have called it quittin’ time early that sixth day. Perhaps THAT is today’s lesson—that when you are tempted at two o’clock on Friday afternoon to start on that complicated project, maybe leave it til Monday. Perhaps we might learn from God when to leave well enough alone!

Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet and storyteller, penned a children’s story about the making of humans by the hands of God. I’ll share a little bit of it with you…
Well, you see, as long as only things were being made, God did not need to look down on the earth continually. Nothing could happen there. The wind was, indeed, already moving among the mountains, which were so like the clouds it had long known, but it still shunned the trees with a certain mistrust. And that was quite right with God. Things he had fashioned so to speak in his sleep, and only when he came to the animals did the work begin to interest him; he bent over it and only seldom raised his broad brows to cast a glance down at the earth. He forgot it completely when he began to create man. I don’t know at which complicated part of the body he had arrived at, when there was a rush of wings about him. An angel hurried by, singing: ‘Thou who seest all….’ 

God started. He had caused that angel to sin, for it was a lie he had just sung. Quickly God-the-Father peered down. And sure enough, something had already happened that was hardly to be remedied. A little bird was fluttering hither and yon over the earth, as though it were frightened, and God was in no position to help it home, for he had not seen out of which forest the poor creature had come. He grew very vexed and said: ‘The birds are to sit still where I put them.’ But then he remembered that at the request of the angels…
…And that is what God's hands have been trying to do ever since, but whatever they start, they can only begin. Without God there is no perfection. And so at last they tired of it. Now they are on their knees all day long, doing penance--at least so it is said. To us, however, it appears as though God were resting, because he is very angry with his hands.  It is still the seventh day.
Oh the seventh day! I picture it (don’t you?) with God sitting in his man cave—a converted garage, a basement workshop, a barca lounger and a flat screen TV. A Beer in hand? (and the feminist in me insists—why is this called a man cave, instead of a personal refuge? Surely women have their need for these spaces!!). Perhaps a study full of books (like mine). But I picture God at rest. In much the same way I occasionally saw my own father at rest (and even less often at play).

My own father is a complicated man. And I am a complicated daughter. As I grew up I thought of him as a man of few words (as his father was before him). But as I have grown older, I realize he is a man with an excess of words seeking longingly for an audience. He is a software engineer, and he is known for long, elegant code that leaves lesser men behind in the dust. He is a bit of a rocket scientist, my dad. My dad can either become an expert at everything, or make you believe that he is. But I see sometimes, in quiet moments, how this world has worn him down. And it is in those moments that I love him the more fiercely. Because I too have been worn down in this life, and he goes before me to show me how one keeps getting up every day and making the best of what is before you.

I see in my own father a terrible restlessness that matches my own: a desire to know and be known that can never be satiated. If there is to be a reconciliation between us, it will come through that restlessness, I think. I see it in my son—the apple falls next to the tree, as we say.

As I watch my father, I am reminded of all the impossible expectations we put upon a man to become the father his father wasn’t—to become the father no man has ever achieved, in fact. And many of our fathers are long gone (or never present) in our lives. We are shaped not just by presence, but by absence—in the same way we are shaped by God’s alternating presence and absence. For better or worse, we none of us are who we are without the father’s we have had or been.

And I’d like to remind us today that there are limitations and difficulties with even the concept of God the Father, and so we humans, well we muddle through the best we can with what we have.

Whoever you are, whatever your father is to you today, whoever it is you call father, however you are a father to others, I wish you a Happy Fathers Day. And I wish you a day of rest from your labors, that you might know that what you have made of this life so far is enough. You are enough. Anything that comes in the future is just icing on the cake.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

b/c it was too long for a Facebook comment...

Me, demonizing.
A friend asked me what I thought of this article: The Danger in Demonizing Men's Sexuality over at The Good Men Project, a web site devoted to articles on masculinity and reframing what it means to be a good man. 

The article wouldn't load on my phone, so I responded quickly: "I'll read it when i get home and give you my thoughts. In general, the good men project makes me uneasy, but it's not written for me."

My primary response remains the same after reading the article, but since my friend asked, I began to write a response. After some time it became obvious that my response was too long for Facebook. So here we are.

So, I have a number of criticisms of this article. Some of it is small change. For instance, I don't use the term "douchebag" or "douche" as an insult. It's a bit misogynist to associate bad behavior with a product women use to clean themselves. I have actually spent way too much time arguing with other feminists about the use of this term. But essentially what you are saying when you use this term is that vaginas are unclean. Which, for the most part, they are not.

Second, the use of Dan Savage as an illustration is problematic. Royse suggests he can, by the nature of his queerness, write about sexuality without getting called a douchebag. Dan Savage has an enormous following AND an almost equally ginormous panel of critics (both straight and queer, trans and cis). 

Next, the assumption that gay men don't desire women and are therefore safe to be around is problematic in three ways (at least). 1) Most gay men I know don't appreciate being used as the safe guy. This idea that straight women can act sexually toward a gay man and he'll just smile is really distasteful. Gay men shouldn't have to ask straight women to knock it off--nobody likes it when someone they don't desire gets in their space anyway. 2) It's just not true. Rape isn't about sex (at least not solely). Rape is a lot about power and rage. A person's sexual preference in adult, consensual relationships is no guarantee that they are not also a sexual predator who crosses sexuality lines. 3) There are plenty of men who identify as gay whose sexuality is a lot more nuanced and complicated than the term indicates. Beyond bisexuality, there is also pansexuality, queerness, asexuality, etc etc etc. It is often convenient to claim a more rigid label--if I'm in a long-term relationship with a cis-woman, do I expend a lot of effort explaining pansexuality to the people who assume I am a lesbian?

As to her main point, that "demonizing" men's sexuality is not helpful in terms of long-term societal change, I'll concede that. I think I would quibble with Royse over what constitutes demonizing. It's not inaccurate to point out that men in general are seen to do the pursuing and women the rejecting. But the reality on the ground is somewhat more complicated than that. 

This article falls in the category of "not all men are like that." (for #NotAllMen, see @sassycrass. And while you're at it, buy her book) And of course that's true. Some of my best friends are men (heh. it's trite but true). But it is not demonizing to point out that certain behaviors, often perpetrated by men, are harmful to women. In the world we live in, teaching women to protect themselves is not demonizing. 

I'd agree with Royse that women need to figure out how to say yes to sex when they want it, and that we need to do a better job of teaching both men and women about sexual pleasure. I wrote a blog post about that a while back called Yes, No, Maybe So. I still go back to that blog post when I'm thinking through how to talk with youth about sex. I still think a good ethical starting point about whether to engage in sexual activity is to ask oneself, "Does this feel good?"

About halfway through the article, Royse writes: 
I could go on and on, but that point is that popular culture sets up this idea that men are sexual predators who need to resort to trickery and cologne to fulfill their one and only mission, which is sticking their penis in a girl. It’s sad. It’s insulting. And it’s damaging.
I'm not certain whether the chicken or the egg came first here: Do men (a generalization) behave like predators because popular culture depicts them that way? Or are men depicted as predators because they behave that way (a generalization)? I suspect it's more organic and intertwined than that. If you're looking for a really good theoretical book on this, I recommend Pierre Bourdieu's Masculine Domination. My simplistic summary for you is this: Men function as predators, leading to the popular depiction of men as predators, leading to more predatory behavior, leading to more popular depictions of predatory masculinity, and on and on in a circle that has no beginning or end, until it simply seems natural that men behave this way. It almost becomes inscribed in our biology (Bourdieu would say it does), or at least this circular logic taints our ability to perceive biology to the point where it is nearly impossible to step out of this way of functioning and perceiving.

(And let me say here that if you are going to argue Bourdieu with me you must 1) read the book in it's entirety, and 2) bring me wine for the discussion.)

So back to Royse: It is indeed sad to say that men's sexual behavior is predatory. But if it is true that men's sexual behavior in general is predatory, then it is not insulting to speak truth. And if it is true, then it is far more damaging not to speak that truth.

But I do want to differentiate between men's sexual desire and men's sexual behavior, which I think we often fail to do. Desires are not inherently bad or demonic. When they are acted out, the resulting behaviors can be bad or demonic. I do not cause damage by desiring a woman. If I ignore her refusal and continued to express or act on that desire then I am behaving badly.

Next Royse calls up the spector of Stubenville and posits that the vast majority of men and boys would not act in such a manner. The definition of sexual assault and harassment is much broader than Stubenville--one need not be of the caliber of Stubenville to perpetuate predatory sexual behavior. But if you press me for my phone number and I don't want to give it, and you block the door til I give you something, anything to get you out of my way, then yeah, that's predatory behavior. Feel free to look up the statistics for the percentage of men who self-report predatory behavior. I don't think I can look at those numbers anymore--they are not insubstantial.

In other words, Stubenville is a bit of a straw man.

Royse's advice for how to be a good guy is fairly standard.

But it's this last line that confirms my uneasiness with The Good Men Project:
"I am sorry that generations of lazy storytelling and bad media have perpetuated the myths of men as predators and women as victims."
A myth? Seriously? Sexual assault is about as common place as wearing a hat. Most assaults are perpetrated by men against women. Sexual assault isn't a myth.

Jesus take the wheel. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Prayer Vigil & Community Meal

Covenant Presbyterian Church
4 candles lit for Keith Day, William Massaquoi
Rayquan Brown, Amir Hassan Glover
Prayer Vigil & Community Meal
Monday, June 9, 2014

We gathered tonight to mourn the violent deaths of 15 men in Trenton since the beginning of January. In the last month there have been 4 murders, including a man who died this morning.

However our prayers and gathering in love over a meal may be useful, O God, use us.

We will gather again for prayer and a meal at Covenant Presbyterian Church on July 7 and August 4, at 6pm. Please bring something to share if you are able, and come anyway if you cannot. We will have plenty to eat.

To get involved, please contact us:
UMIO (United Mercer Interfaith Organization)
umioorganizer@gmail.com

Chevin Burgess, 22, January 4
Keyaan Lee Young, 25, January 6
Keyon Shontel Wade, 39, Jauary 18
Julio Cesar Cruz, 18, February 15
Dwelle Jerome Clark, 55, February 18
Charles White, 43, March 8
Joseph Gaines, 44, April 3
Cagney Roberts, 19, April 9
Raheim Hayes, 34, April 9
Jahmir Hall, 24, April 19
Aaron Lewis, 23, April 24
Keith Day, 26, May 14
William Massaquoi, 25, May 28
Rayquan Brown, 16, June 1
Amir Hassan Glover, 24, June 9

There is so much more to tell in the stories of these men's lives. We lifted them in prayer tonight. We remember their names. We talked of hope and possibility for what can be done and who we can come to know. For tonight, that is what we can do. Tomorrow there will be more.

Selah.