Monday, September 19, 2016

Yesterday's MVP Moment: A Testimony from an Incredibly Courageous Young Woman

One of our newest members shared these words in worship on September 18 and has given me permission to share them with you here. May they call you to prayer and deep reflection as you read them. And may we all seek to be part of a community that is showing up for each other in real and powerful ways. 

As many of you know, my life was turned upside down in January of this year when I was diagnosed with Stage III Inflammatory Breast Cancer.  It’s been hard to find the words to explain what it feels like to be told you have cancer at such a young age.  I know some of you have lived it, you don’t need me to tell you what it feels like.  But here I was, i the middle of all my plans, being told that life had already happened, that this might be all I get.

The best description I’ve heard comes from Kate Bowler, a Professor at Duke Divinity School fighting cancer.  She describes the moments after learning about her diagnosis as feeling like she was behind a pane of glass, and everyone she loved was on the other side.

Cancer is so isolating.  A lot of people just don’t know how to talk about it, so we don’t.  There aren’t enough words in this language or any other to explain the pinch of the needle or the rush of the dangerous radioactive drugs through your veins.  There aren’t enough words to describe the headache and the fog.  There aren’t words to explain the burn on your scalp when your hair starts falling out in chunks or the indignity of taking a lint roller to your head in the mornings in a vain attempt to contain the mess and pass for normal, healthy.  There are not words to explain to your 35 year-old friends what it feels like to be in chemically induced menopause, and there are no words to explain to your 50 year-old friends what it feels like to be 35 and know this.  There are not words to explain what it feels like to stand in a hotel room alone, unable to open the individual serving coffee or the tiny conditioner bottle, because the drugs have pushed back the cancer, but they’ve taken the feeling in your fingertips and your dexterity with them as they went.  And I really, honestly don’t have the words to describe the excitement and the fear of knowing that in a few short days, they will cut out the cancer and the rest of my breasts with it, and that my body will very clearly never be the same again.  But it doesn’t really matter if there are enough words, because even if there were, I’m too exhausted to explain it, too exhausted to answer the phone, too exhausted to carry on a conversation.  And anyway, no one wants to hear the messy details.  It’s awkward, and private, and gross.

But this place.  You people.  You have repeatedly broken that plate glass between us.  You knew that it was messy and ugly and private on the other side, and you kept breaking that glass anyway.  I protested, and I hid, and I didn’t answer the phone.  It was so hard to accept help, over and over again.  I mean, I wasn’t even a member for goodness sake, I wasn’t in your small group, I may not have even known your name.  And yet you kept knocking on that glass, with tiny rocks, and giant bricks, and sledgehammers.  And I didn’t feel so alone.  I was able to see a small glimmer of hope.  When the offers to help died away and everyone else was tired of talking about my cancer, you kept showing up.

When Donna talks about God living within you so that others can know Christ…this is it.  I get to bring my whole cancer-ridden, out of control life in here every week.  I don’t have to stop outside the door and pull myself together.  I don’t have to tell you everything is going great.  You don’t want me to sugar coat it for you.  You want to stand next to me in the mess and hold my hand.

And for that I will be forever grateful.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Politics of Jesus: Land of Plenty

Land of Plenty

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and Luke 9:10-17

            How much is enough?

            I wonder when you find yourself asking this question.

            Perhaps you asked it last night when you left a tip for your server after finishing your last bite of dessert following a fabulous dinner. You may have examined the total amount charged and pondered for a moment whether to tip on the pre-tax or the post-tax amount, especially since the food and beverage tax in Washington is 10%. After making this decision, you had to decide whether to tip 15 or 20% of the amount charged. And while these decisions take only a few minutes to make, there are many emotions that float through our minds while making them.

How much is enough for me to express my gratitude to this person who went out of her way to keep my water glass full?

How much is enough for my date to not think I’m cheap?

How much is enough to have in my wallet after leaving the tip since we’re going to get drinks next?

How much is enough for the server’s needs, given that this tip is part of the source of her livelihood?

What is enough?

How many of us have enough?

How many of us have more than enough?

How many of us do not have enough?

What would it take for every person to have enough?

People have been prone to taking more than enough, testing God’s definition of enough since the beginning of time.

In the Old Testament lesson read today, the Israelites have left Egypt and are on their way to the Promised Land when they start complaining and questioning God. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3).

The Lord hears their complaining and then makes a promise through Moses, stating how bread from heaven will soon arrive. And sure enough, the Israelites wake up to a fine, flaky substance covering the ground. Seeing the manna, Moses repeats the Lord’s commandments to take “as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person… all providing for those in their own tents” (Ex. 16:16). God has provided enough. The people simply have to take what they need. Still, many people fail to follow God’s instructions by taking more than they need for that day, and everything they take and do not consume breeds worms, becomes foul or melts.

God tests the Israelites. And the Israelites fail the test when they take more than enough. Indeed, much of what God gives provides an occasion for temptation – temptation most biblical characters cannot resist.

While I refuse to believe that God tests us with adversities or bad things to see how much we can handle, I cannot help but wonder if God tempts us with good things or tests us with abundance in order to see how we will respond – if we can handle the admonition to take just enough.

Does God watch to see if we have taken our fair share, the exact amount we need, while looking even harder to see what we do with our excess?

And I wonder what God thinks about the current state of our city where the persistent income inequality is one of the widest of any other major city in the nation?

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “The average household income of the top 5 percent of District residents is $487,000” just under a half a million dollars, which is the third highest amount among large U.S. cities. At the same time, “The average income for the poorest fifth of DC residents fell to $9,300” in 2014.[1]

How many of us can imagine living on less than $10,000 a year? Twenty percent of the residents of our city are doing just that.

But the racial differences are even more striking. “DC’s lowest-income residents are overwhelmingly people of color, and nearly half were born in DC, compared with just 17 percent of other residents.”[2] While our economy is growing and many of us love all the changes in our city, long-term residents of color are being left behind. And in a city with rents rising rapidly to an average of $2,133 a month for a one-bedroom apartment,[3] roughly 45% of our households have incomes below $50,000.

While we cannot see everyone’s struggle to make ends meet, most of us see poverty every single day. And if the truth were told, there are times when I loathe walking to Chinatown because I don’t want to see the real need, the pain of it all.  

Shane Claiborne writes, “It’s really, really difficult to understand that there is a God who is good when everything around us is so ugly and broken. And it’s hard to understand that there is hope and life after death when so many people are going, ‘Well, is there life before death?’ and ‘If God really loves me, then why are my kids starving to death?’ And the incredible thing I think a lot of us have felt is….’ God why don’t you do something?”[4]

            Why is it ugly?

            Why is it broken?

            Why does God allow it?

            Why do I allow it?

Have we been seduced into thinking, “That’s just the way things are?”

Or are we willing to work towards a different reality?

            What would it take for us to embody and work towards an economy of love? It’s the economy God put in place in Exodus. In fact, God commands the Israelites to not take more than they need for each day before God even gives the Ten Commandments. Details regarding God’s economy, policies about what people are to do with what God has provided, fill the pages of scripture. Instructions about gleaning are found in Leviticus where people are told to leave fruit and vegetables from their crops on the edge of the land and avoid going through the fields a second time to get additional food but rather to leave this food for the poor to come and gather.[5]

            Words about how to practice jubilee are also found in Leviticus. Debts are to be forgiven every seventh year. Land is redistributed. If things have gotten too far off balance, then the inequality was dismantled at least once a decade.

            God teaches people how to handle what they been given. How, then did we get to the place where we are tempted to believe that theology, the study of God, is only about the internal life – things like meaning, purpose and value – and not what we do with our possessions as individuals and as a nation?

            One of my favorite interpretations of the Luke passage read today questions whether the miracle was in Jesus multiplying five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5000 people or whether the miracle is people seeing the power of community. The disciples want to send the crowds away to fend for themselves through private means. But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples see scarcity, and Jesus sees abundance. The miracle happens when Jesus invites people to sit down in groups of 50 each. Soon all are fed, and there are 12 baskets of food leftover.

Is the miracle multiplication, or is the miracle people seeing each other and wanting to care for each other?

Is the miracle multiplication, or is the miracle people taking a smaller portion so all can be fed?

Is the miracle multiplication, or is the miracle people admitting that they have a little food in their backpacks and are willing to share it now that they know one another?

What could we do to embody this miracle today?

One theologian has suggested that if every Christian in North America tithed, the church could feed every hungry person, fund basic education for all the world’s children, and have enough left over to fund the evangelistic ministries of the church.[6] Hundreds of individuals are then trying to figure out if this person is telling the truth by participating in an organization called the Relational Tithe. Participants give 10% of their income to meet the real needs of people with whom they are in community. Similar to what happen in our gospel lesson today, something powerful happens when people live and give in community. In the short period of time people have been embodying the relational tithe, one specific group has “provided sustainable job creation in Philadelphia, basic food needs in the Caribbean, transportation for a single parent in California, housing in Cairo, microenterprise development in Nigeria…health care in North Carolina, and a proper funeral for a thirteen-year-old Sudanese refugee from Nebraska.”[7]

I’d love to be part of such a community on a micro level, expanding my notion of family to include so many more people.

But what do we do on a macro level?

Douglas Meeks explains how the Greek word oikonomia from which we derive the word economy, is a compound of oikos which means household and nomos which is law or management. Economy is the management of the household, a group of people living together, a community. The care of the community is central to how God sees the purpose of the economy. But today, the care of the community is no longer the center of our economy. Instead, “Accumulation of wealth and exchange have replaced livelihood as the center of economy,” writes Meeks before adding, “The values of our economic organization are often held higher than human dignity.”[8] Furthermore, most people view the economy through the lens of scarcity, the never enough syndrome, instead of believing there is more than enough. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove hits the nail on the head when he says, “People are rich and people are poor, but no one is satisfied.”[9]

But God says something completely different. The story of our faith is a story that believes there is always enough to go around whenever God is present. We have a foretaste of God’s economy each time we come to the table, a place where all are welcome and no one is turned away. It is this table where all are fed the same amount of food and drink and where all are satisfied. And while we have run out of fried chicken at a potluck anytime someone does not give each person one piece of chicken at a time, we have not once run out of bread at this table.

There is always enough at God’s table.

There is always enough in God’s economy.

Parker Palmer suggests that one of the essential habits of the heart for sustaining a democracy is the belief that we are all in this together. We are dependent and accountable to one another.[10]

God has provided more than enough. The instructions we have been given are clear. God says “Take what you need” in the Old Testament passage, and Jesus says “You. You give them something to eat” in the gospel. In both cases everyone is fed, and everyone is taken care of.

What would such a life look like if fully practiced not just in our families and sometimes in our church but on a local, national and international scale?

How can we get there because that’s the politics of Jesus?

[4] Shane Claiborne and Isaac Anderson, Economy of Love (Relational Tithe, Inc. 2010), 18.
[5] Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22.
[6] Claiborne, 89.
[7] Claiborne, 111.
[8] Douglas Meeks, God the Economist (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 4.
[9] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, God’s Economy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 45.
[10] Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 44.