Meanwhile, the women…

John 19:16-25

So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew,[f] in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,

“They divided my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.”

25 And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, the women…

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 

The gospels of Mark and Luke say there were also women looking on from a distance: Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and Salome, and all the women who had followed him from Galilee. Some commentaries call this “Jesus’ female entourage.”

There they were. The whole time. Defying angry mobs, these women. These mamas. They’re there. Close behind and right at hand. They gasp and weep. And crumble. And get up and tend. They fall back and then press in. Jesus’ mama. His auntie. His friends. And their mamas. The women of Jerusalem, with their babies in tow, infants swaddled, toddlers on hips, hauling up that hellish hill, bearing witness, every one of them to the terrors of evil. Refusing to close their eyes to it. These women who had birthed and raised and followed and financed and upheld and loved this boy, now man. They come. They stay. They are relentless in their grief and unwavering in their resolve. They stand near.

Plundering. Tearing. Auctioning off the contraband. That is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, the women… Stayed. Watched. Tended. Wept.

What John does here, what Jesus did throughout his ministry, what other writers of the gospels – and even Old Testament stories do – is occasionally offer us a glimpse from the other side. Dominant narrative be damned. Meanwhile, the women…

Meanwhile, the Hebrew midwives…

Meanwhile, Hagar…

Meanwhile, the women who mourned Jephtah’s daughter…

Meanwhile, the daughters of Zelophehad…

Meanwhile, Miriam…

Meanwhile…

We must also learn to listen, read, write and sing the stories from the other side. From where the women stand or where the slaves work or where the children listen in. We must hear the stories as they come from the red tents or the slave quarters of history. Pay attention. Mr. Rogers told the children that whenever there was an emergency or a disaster or something goes wrong, to look for the helpers. I suggest that when read Scripture or listen to political narratives we must also wonder about the “lesser” stories of the women, the children, the refugees, the slaves and the resisters.

I had preached this last Sunday morning in final session of a women’s retreat at which, over three days, we had walked through the life of Jesus’ mama, Mary. It all came to mind again this week as I followed the news of Turkish assaults in Syria. I read about bombings and negotiations and expired “deals,” and that “the U.S. is sending armoured vehicles back into Syria. Not to protect its Kurdish allies, but to “>guard oil fields.”

Plundering. Tearing. Auctioning off the contraband. Protecting the flipping oil fields. That is what the soldiers did. That is what the presidents did.

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Meanwhile the aid workers, the doctors, the peacemakers…

I tuned into reports from those working on the front lines, particularly those with the Preemptive Love Coalition. The ones who had given away the very last backpacks of food that they’d been distributing to those at the border. The ones who were tending the wounded.

Stayed, watched, tended, wept. That is what the helpers did.

So much of this is not okay.  In the aftermath of Canada’s elections, in our dear, unsettled Bolivia as contested elections again lead to riots and protests. The world’s on fire and it’s easy to look to the ones in power and be confused about what to do, which way is up, who’s right or wrong and who’s telling the truth.

And again, I want to say, dominant narrative be damned. Instead, follow Jesus’ finger as he points to the wounded, the broken, the child, the outcast, and the ones who stand near. Listen to their voices. Stand with them in whatever way you can.

Meanwhile, the women…

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protections

I began working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse in 2002, the same year that the Boston Globe released its super expose of the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of sexual assault by priests all over the U.S. and the world. The stories I heard over the next few years would confirm that these dark secrets were not only held by the Catholic Church. In fact, Christians of all kinds have been violating and silencing children, protecting opportunistic perpetrators in all spaces and positions of power for generations.

In 2004 I moved to El Alto, Bolivia’s red light district, meeting women in the dark spaces of their night and accompanying them through the harsh light of day. One by one, I came to know women who had been handed over by parents and relatives, neighbours and community leaders to a system of prostitution that we came to best understand and describe as paid rape.

In 2010 I moved back to the United States and that fall began working at a small midwestern liberal arts college. The top stories in those years were of campus sexual assault. Nearby at Notre Dame before classes even started, Lizzie Seeberg was raped by a Notre Dame football star who would enjoy the protection of his athletic department and university administration through a celebrated career. [Lizzie committed suicide ten days after the assault.] Echoes of this story would bounce off campuses all over the country, including our own.

In November 2016, my fellow Americans elected a known sexual offender to the office of President. My eldest daughter was three and my second baby girl would be born nine days later. Outraged, disgusted grief followed for me. I felt betrayed by a nation that would choose to protect and further empower a perpetrator at the expense of the vulnerable.

In 2017, female celebrities began to tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of film and television tycoons. Many of us joined the #metoo movement begun by Tarana Burke in 2007. The accounts that have been shared have begun to dismantle the culture of hubris and entitlement that has propped up perverse men in all kinds of industries.

And just today, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years for his ongoing abuse of over 100 victims as the trusted and esteemed U.S. Gymnastics National & Olympic team doctor. The voices of the athletes who survived him have been bold and brave this week. And they have pointed with decisive strength, not only to Nassar, but to the coaches and trainers and parents and committee officials who chose to look away.

My own recounting here is ridiculously limited in its scope. This is the wide brush of my memory of the public incidents that keep bringing me down. Sometimes to my knees, sometimes to fetal position. I have gag-cried many hours over these losses. Just as I have been overwhelmed by the resilience and courage of those who have suffered them. I am still learning. I am still listening. I am still grieving.

But it is no longer the impulse and audacity of these offenders that most grieves and confounds me. Some part of me, despite my ongoing on earth as it is in heaven prayers, has come to expect that this type of twisted evil exists. I even accept – with great reluctance – that a few weak, perverse and cowardly people will give it home within them.

What I cannot accept is those of us who have given them room. We, the non-offending parents and uninterested coaches, the image-conscious leadership and the shrugging teammates. We, who have made our workplaces and worship-places, our neighbourhoods and campuses and athletic arenas and theatres into harbours for sexual violence and the violators themselves. We, who have chosen career or comfort or political promise over the innocence of children and the dignity of our sisters and brothers.

We know that the impact of abuse can be exponentially exacerbated or contained depending on the conditions and care following an incident of abuse or assault. We know that survivors who are heard, who are believed and who are well-cared for in the aftermath of rape or abuse are less prone to the destructive power of their trauma. Therefore, we must be those who see and hear and believe, who care deeply and act bravely.

We also know the incredible potential for behaviour modification through care for and intense accountability of those who struggle with sexual addiction and aggression. Much more work remains to be done in this area, but we know that tendencies toward sexual violence can be thwarted before they become actual violence. That abusive thoughts do not inevitably become abusive patterns. We believe that men deserve to live free too.

And lastly, we know the kinds of environments and relationships where power goes unchecked, where secrets are protected, where complicity is default. We know that “harmless” misogynistic dinner conversations lay the groundwork for workplace (and worship-place) inequality. We know that children who are easily isolated are often targeted. We must become people who keep watch and take pulse and dismantle the subtle underminings before they become full-scale systems of abuse. We have too often chosen self-preservation and extended our protections toward those who are least deserving.

Enough.

 

 

 

 

 

the darkest night of the year

This weekend we will outfit our kiddos as lambs and shepherds and on queue, direct them toward the manger at centre stage in our warm little church in the frozen prairies of the great North. We’ll dim the lights and sing O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night and maybe light a candle. It’ll be classic and sweet, no doubt with some rogue sheep and mistimed lines. And no matter how cute the chaos, my mind will wander over time and space to other places I’ve spent Christmas Eve, other dark nights into which Jesus has come. Some scandalous, others ridiculously safe. Some lonely, some full. Some here, some half a world away. 

Below is a reflection I wrote in the weeks following Christmas Eve 2007, from El Alto, Bolivia where I was working with Word Made Flesh among women who prostitute.

The Darkest Night of the Year. It’s the title of Over the Rhine’s Christmas album [find it here], but the words themselves seem to be the mantra to which I walk as I pass in and out of brothel doors. Every time I have entered these places, I have let my eyes adjust to the dim red glow of the interior; I have tried to block out the mixed smell of alcohol, sex and urine; I have swallowed the never-dulling shock and disgust of passing an exiting client as I make my way toward one of my friends. Tonight somehow feels different, darker in a way that didn’t seem possible before.

I spent the earlier part of the day baking cookies, searching El Alto’s market for wrapping paper and reading e-mails of Christmas greetings from home that brought tears for the reminders of family and friends whom I was missing. Now I clutch my paper scribbled with newly-learned Spanish Christmas carols and follow this ridiculous-looking group of WMF Bolivia staff and volunteers sporting Santa hats, a guitar and recorder for accompaniment, a thermos full of hot chocolate, and a supply of plastic Dixie cups. We have been told the girls working tonight will be few, but we find more than we expect. I am not the only one away from family tonight. I make eye contact with one of the men and wonder who might be missing him this Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). The music is loud, the request for temporary reprieve is granted, and we find ourselves in a suddenly silent brothel, under the gazes of clients and girls.

To the tune of “Silent Night” we sing, Noche de amor, noche de paz. “Night of love, night of peace.” It feels almost mocking. How can I sing of love and peace in this place where the most beautiful expressions of love are defiled, where peace is shattered repeatedly? I make my way to one of the girls in a doorway. I don’t know her well, can’t remember her name, but recognize her from lunches at the center. I receive a warm look of recognition from her as well, greet her with a customary kiss, embrace and find her falling into me, the jerk of a sob on my shoulder. She holds me for a moment then pulls away, wipes her tears, and I take her hand and lead her to where the rest of the group has gathered, pulling the song sheet from my pocket. I stand there with my hand over her shoulder, fingers intertwined in hers, and hear her voice join our little indiscriminate choir. O Santa Noche. How can this night be holy?

But these are the songs we sing, about silent, holy nights of love and peace. A night both dark and sacred. Quiet enough to crave the cry of a baby King, black enough to welcome the light of the star of Bethlehem. The Darkest Night of the Year. And into this night we are asked to bring Truth. “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes!’” (Isaiah 62:11). We are asked to carry light, to hold the hand of one of His beloved, to tell her she is remembered.

Back at the center, as the guitar is being packed up and hats are coming off, our friend and board director, Humberto, will describe this night as the most atrevido of his life. Atrevido. This one word holds implications of boldness, insolence, daring. And perhaps it is. Perhaps this is indeed the scandal of the Gospel. And perhaps tonight I understand it in a way that I never have before.

With tears in my own eyes, I had asked her to come with us. Begged her to leave. She stayed. We continued on, singing those same carols a dozen times more, receiving skeptical looks from bouncers and applause from drunken men. The girls were quieter recipients, but in the weeks that followed we would hear gracias a hundred times or more. Thank you. Thank you for remembering us.

And He does. He remembers her. He comes for her, to her, into the darkest of nights, into her darkest of rooms. He stands with her there and holds her hand.

See, your Savior comes.

heralds & civil engineers, surrogates & midwives

This is the sermon I shared yesterday on the second Sunday in Advent, to our small but mighty congregation, Whitewater Mennonite Church in Boissevain, Manitoba. The Advent theme was Peace and my primary scripture texts were Isaiah 40:1-9 and Psalm 85:1-2, 8-9 (both from the New Revised Standard Version). 

 

The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness cannot put it out.

May the Peace of the Lord be with you… And also with you.

————————————-

Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.

He speaks peace, to you, his people, his faithful. His salvation is at hand, that his glory may dwell in our land.

It’s been said that for the good news to be the good news, 2 things have to be true:

  1. It has to be good.
  2. It has to be news.

Proclaiming peace and comfort to North-American Christians in 2017 can feel a bit anti-climactic.

One of Maeve’s most requested activities this time of year is the after-dinner “Christmas walk.” We bundle up and take to the streets on foot to take in as many manger scenes and inflatable big guys as our cold toes and cheeks will allow. There is one yard that Maeve refers to as the “surprise place.” Some of you know it as “Moncur’s yard.” And, as tradition goes, from the bottom of our driveway, for a block and a half, she covers her eyes, peaking all the while through her own purple mitten, insisting that when we get to the “surprise place,” I yell, “SURPRISE!!!”

The impact of surprise, however, is a little lost if you saw it coming the whole time and in fact, it was your idea.

Likewise, the impact of a God who sings “Comfort, comfort.” And “who speaks peace to you His people,” may be a little lost on us who have, with incredible success, planned for, provided & delivered so many of our own creature comforts.

Some say that this good news isn’t for us. That we (North-American Christians) have had our fill of Comfort and God isn’t actually speaking to us here.

I think they are wrong insofar as we do the work of emptying – (Pastor Wes asked this of us last week – to assume an open posture and let go). For me, one of the beautiful gifts of our 10 commandments study, has been this bearing down and emptying out of the Gods and idols, crutches and artificial fillers, I use to satisfy the empty spaces God himself waits to inhabit in me.

If You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But do not realize that you are (actually) wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.[1] You miss out on this good news.

Jesus was approached fairly frequently by the rich, those in power, the materially “comfortable.” And I don’t think you will find an instance – not once – in which he turned them away. But he did require them to empty themselves – their pockets, their storehouses, their egos. That He may enter in.

I think in order for us to understand the impact of these words, Comfort and peace we have to step back, dig deep and hunker down a bit.

At the beginning of Isaiah 40, we find the people of God in exile – and not just out for a long walk as was my childhood Sunday School understanding, – their city was occupied and in ruins; their place of worship had burned to the ground; their children hauled off, taken as slaves; many of their men killed. And their women had been taken in all the ways women are taken in war-time.

Imagine yourself in the camps outside of Baghdad or among your parents or grandparents fleeing the Ukraine, or with the tribes of displaced Indigenous people pushed to the edges and outlands after any one of many massacres that are a part of our shared history.

Perhaps it’s enough to just rest for minute deep inside your own grief, or loss, cancer, loneliness, anxiety. The fear that wakes you in the night. Or the relentless ache that hides you away.

Shhh, it’s okay,. That’s enough. I’ve gotchyou, says your God.

Tenderly, God says. Be gentle. Tell her it’s over.

It’s hard to bear the beautiful blow of a God who speaks comfort, until we’ve tapped deeply into our vulnerabilities.

When we sit with the vulnerable. When we feel their ache. And our own. Then and there we hear the in-breaking voice of our God.

Comfort, O comfort my people.

Shhh… it’s okay. It’s over.

It’s then that Israel lifts her weary head and starts to pack up – because all this time in exile, she’s been waiting to go home. To return to the place of promise God had given them. We need only to watch the news this week to be reminded of the incredible significance of Jerusalem for the people of God. The people of Israel are homesick, nostalgic for the way things were. No doubt stories still floated about camp of how incredible worship had been at the temple. How grounded they had felt in the land God had given them. As we read the psalms of lament and the cries of the people in the wilderness, the cry to return is strong.[2]

They are ready. Rolling up their tents, you can almost hear the giddy chatter, the humming of the alma mater, We’re coming home! And while they’re arguing over how to pack the camels and which route will have the best pit stops this time of year… A voice calls out – with a cosmic shift in the plan.

***Hold up. Don’t move. Stay there. Get ready.

YOUR GOD… IS COMING TO YOU.

[“But I thought…”]

All this while, God’s people have been waiting for Him to lead them back. For Him to clear the road – or part the sea or however this was going to go this time around – that they might return.

The news of the incarnation, of Emanuel, God with us, is a reversal.

See, we too, want him to usher us out – to bring us back – from debt, from depression, from cancer, from conflict. Our expectation – and our cries – are for deliverance. The announcement that God instead is on His way in to our brokenness may not be the good news we hoped for.

And yet… Behold, he comes.

A voice cries out: In the wilderness,

Prepare the way of the Lord

Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low.

Make the uneven ground level and the rough places flat.

 

While we were waiting for God to smooth things out, He instead enlisted us in the work. As heralds, as contractors and civil engineers. As surrogates and as midwives.

—-

We are called upon to Host the Almighty God within us. That is the Good News.

—–

Cry out, God says, and like our brother John, we stand on desert highways like bug-eating, sticky-bearded lunatics and shout to the passers-by. “He’s coming!”

Make straight the highway, He says. And, with Israel, we set up our surveying scopes and dynamite and stand by while mountains crumble and valleys are lifted up. While the powerful lose their over-confident grips and the Silence-Breakers are given the front page.

Don’t be afraid, the angel says. And, with Mary, we go about making room in our lives, our homes and our very bodies, for the incarnate God.

I have seen you, O people of God. People of Boissevain, of Whitewater answer that call. A decade ago, God showed you his hungry, underemployed-self in your midst – you built a house, and set a table and have been filling the shelves of our food pantry ever since…

Prepare ye the way.

God showed you his displaced baby boys in the South China sea, and on Mediterranean beaches, and in the camps of north Sudan, you tore down walls and put up decks, and opened spaces in your own homes and hearts…

That the glory of the Lord may dwell in your land.

When God cried to you through the crackling, struggling squawks of newborns in the NICU who needed a home. You said, “Here I am, the maidservant of our LORD.”

You know this work. And while we started this conversation with Peace and Comfort, you know this part too… Here’s the rub: If you take this call too seriously (and you should), the work of Peace is – ironically – incredibly volatile.

When God commissions his highways, he doesn’t do it the way our city planners do: Forcing the poor out of their homes and neighbourhoods to make room for new overpasses and on ramps that accelerate the commute of the already upwardly-mobile. The kingdom road comes not through the upheaval of the poor, but instead tears up Tuxedo Park on its way into the projects. The kingdom of God does not route a precarious pipeline through the fruit-bearing land of struggling farmers and over water mains of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. I believe it is more likely to compromise military bases and the Gold-laced towers of those in power.

This work of the kingdom, if we’re doing it right, is bound to be politically unpopular, and likely, incredibly dangerous. Being a messenger for this kind of in-breaking… It puts a target on your back. If you say yes, like Mary did, the king will send armies to hunt you – and your babies – down. If you shout as loud as our brother John, your head very well may end up on a platter.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy Advent. May the peace of the Lord be with you.

Just kidding. Kind of. I won’t leave you there. Not quite.

2 Peter 3 asks this: 11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought we to be, as we wait for and hasten[a]the coming of our God? 

Waiting and hastening – this is the good work of Advent.

He asks and then he answers:

14 Beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.

And we’re back. Striving to be found at peace. All the while the mountains are dissolving and the earth is on fire. Friends, we live in an anxious world. I wonder if a huge part of our offering as the church to the world, might be that we would – in the face of it all, live PEACE.

I read an article recently called, When I am afraid, I practice dying.[3]

The author, in the face of anxiety and panic attacks, had together with her spiritual director, come up with a strange and brilliant strategy. Instead of fighting it and clamouring her way back, she began to use those attacks as a chance to practice her own death. She closed her eyes and imagined being received by her all-loving, Comfort-singing, God. Isn’t that brilliant? When I’m afraid, practice dying. And being found at peace. Friends, if we can manage that…

We can do the rest.

Prepare the way. Make straight the highways. Stand on the fault lines and shout the ground-shifting news of his coming. Give God your Mary-inspired, “yes.”

If that terrifies you, it’s okay. Open your breath, your hands, your hearts, your inroad… Hear the voice of God. And be found at Peace.

Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.

 

[1] Revelation 3:17, NIV

[2] Psalm 137 is a good example.

[3] https://themennonite.org/im-afraid-practice-dying/

what ARE we teaching our children?!?

A few weeks back, a friend of a friend tagged an article about four city council officers in Ann Arbor, Michigan [see article] who chose to “take a knee” during a recent meeting. Her caption was the rhetorically inflamed, “what ARE we teaching our children?” This is my (non-rhetorical, all-in) answer.

I’m sure there’s a lot of variance in what we’re teaching our kids. Here’s what I hope to be teaching mine:

  • None of us is free until all of us are free;
  • Jesus identified every time with the least of these – the orphan, widow, foreigner, outcast. The ones who were homeless, in prison, and bleeding;
  • Jesus asks us to do the same, even – and maybe especially – if that goes against power, empire, religion, tradition;
  • Be curious. Listen generously;
  • The way of the cross (non-resistance) is not one of cowardice but courage;
  • You are Beloved by the One True God. So is your neighbour. (Yes, even she is your neighbour.) Act accordingly.

That’s a start anyway. And here’s the hardest part: I know/hope/and (honestly) just fear that someday these things I’m teaching them will cause them to act ways that actually threaten my own sensibilities, loyalties, and peace. That someday they will question and confront a darkness in the world that I’ve been content to ignore. May it be so. And Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. Give me the humility and courage to join them on their knees.

the prophetic imagination

“The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
― Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

 

from the outside

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Every once in a while you get a glimpse of your own life from the outside. I snapped this last night as I slipped away at supper time for a quick meeting. Bundled against the snow, through a dirty window, I saw my family. At the table. Wearing tutus, licking tiny fingers and dishing out pasta. From the inside, I would have been too overwhelmed by the whining, the dropping of forks, my own nagging and counting of bites to see how absolutely perfect my very ordinary cluttered life is.
Step back, my friends. Take a breath. It’s all good.