Saturday, March 10, 2018

Those who vomit

I had been away for two weeks caring for my new grandbaby Justin during the days while his parents were at work, and it was time for me to head home. So, this morning I caught the E Train in Queens to make my way toward Penn Station and my train back to Baltimore. After hauling my suitcase onto a crowded subway, I struggled to keep my balance as I held onto a rail and tried not to fall into the woman beside me. I needed to find a seat.

Spying an unoccupied space at the other end of the car, I worked my way through the people until I finally plopped myself down, holding onto my suitcase like a cello between my legs. What a relief!

Now, if I had looked more carefully, I might have noticed that people were standing all around, but no one had taken this seat. What I did notice was the man sitting next to this space. He was all bundled up in a shabby hat and coat with just a bit of his scraggly, bearded face showing. He appeared to be sleeping. I had seen others like him riding the subways in winter, people who rested their bodies, protected from the cold, as they settled in for the day. He was homeless, but harmless, and I wasn’t above sharing a seat with him.

Then I it hit me. Right in the face. The man reeked of vomit. The kind that smells like rancid dairy products and is so pungent that it burns right through your lungs and pokes at your gut. It was all I could do to keep from gagging. No wonder the seat was empty. And here I was. Lord, have mercy. I quickly began breathing through my mouth.

As I sat there, I noticed how the people around me were reacting to the smell. A family of tourists with two teenagers got on the subway and stood directly in front of me. I could see them whispering to one another, looking at the man with disgust. Yes, he was disgusting. I agreed. I felt trapped and was, at that very moment, searching for alternative seating.

Then I started to think about how I had spent the past two weeks. My nostrils had become accustomed to the smell of vomit… not nearly as pungent as this, but like a diluted version of it, also with the distinct smell of spoiled milk. It was always on my clothes. Sometimes I was so soaked with it that I had to shower, but as soon as I got all cleaned up, *boom*, it happened again. At three months, Justin is like a lot of babies. He spits up pert near every time he eats. I started to get used to it; I’d just wipe the vomit off my clothes and go on.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining here, because I’m not. I love that little guy to pieces, and that’s just what he does right now.

I wondered, if I could have compassion for Justin’s vomit, could I not also have compassion for this homeless man’s vomit? And then, I thought about how, at one time, this man was a baby just like my sweet Justin. He may have been held in the arms of his Nana who loved him unconditionally. She may have dreamed of all that he might one day become, never imagining this moment for him on the E Train, riding toward Manhattan, surrounded by people who found him disgusting.

I saw a seat open up a short distance away. It happened right about the time I realized that this man was created in the image of God just as certainly as my dear Justin was. And so I remained where I was.  

I don't think I would have done that three weeks ago, but spending two weeks getting vomited on by someone I love more than anything gave me a new appreciation for those who vomit. 

Friday, February 9, 2018


Christmas made me sick this year. Beginning December 26, I was afflicted with the crud and it took me until February to feel human again. It was brutal. The worst part was that during this time I felt myself becoming something I detest: a whiner. Whiners drive me up a wall!

The last time I was with my three-year-old grandson, Nick, he started whining. I saw this as a teachable moment and introduced him to the Whiner family by pulling up a video of an old episode of Saturday Night Live on my phone. You may remember them. Every word they utter is spoken in a whiny tone that is as annoying as a preacher hacking and clearing the mucus out of her or his throat after every sentence. I never thought the Whiners were all that amusing. Mostly, I just wanted to turn the TV off. Nick watched with interest wondering what this had to do with whatever it was he was whining about.

“Are you a member of the Whiner family?” I asked him.

“I’m not a member of the Whiner family; I’m Nicholas Ferrara.” He spoke the words even whinier than before, just to let me know who was in charge.

Kids and cats are notorious whiners. As someone who lives with a cat, I seldom hear Guido whine these days, and when he does, he never gets what he wants. I won’t reward it. I like to believe that’s why he rarely whines. I think the same method works on kids. Neither my son nor my daughter are whiners. If they whined when they were wee little, it didn’t last long. They knew better. It never got them very far with me. As for other people’s kids, well, you need to know that I love other people’s kids. Really, I do. But when they whine, I’m gone.

As a pastor, from time-to-time, parishioners come to me and whine. I don’t have a problem with crying, which I believe is good for the soul, and I consider it an honor when someone shares their tears with me. But whining is something else. And when they whine, it takes all the restraint I can muster to listen sympathetically when everything within me wants to smack them and shout, “Suck it up!”

I’m grateful that God is a lot more patient than I am with whiners. It seems to be God’s nature to put up with them. There was Adam who whined that he wasn’t responsible for his actions; it was all Eve’s fault. And who can forget the children of Israel, who were saved from slavery and certain death through a miracle of God’s deliverance, and then proceeded to whine for forty years because things weren’t quite perfect on the way to the Promised Land. Jesus’ disciples were classic whiners, all worried about petty concerns, like who got to talk to Jesus, or who got to sit where in the Kingdom, as if any of that mattered a hill of beans. And then there’s Saint Paul, who was so pathetic, whining round and round in circles about how he wanted to do the right thing, but as hard as he tried, he always ended up doing what he knew he shouldn’t be doing. Oh, Whaa! Whaa! Whaa!

The Bible might be subtitled, The Book of Whining. It’s filled with self-centered people who don’t get what God’s up to and can only fret about what’s in it for them, or as often as not, what’s not in it for them. Of course, the Bible gives us a spot-on representation of humanity.

If I were God, I would have ended the whining a long time ago. I really don’t know how God tolerates it. But from what I know of God, she/he does more than tolerate it. God seems to have an affinity toward whiners. I don’t understand it one bit. But it’s true.

As much as I hate it hate it hate it hate it, there are times when I have to whine because I know that if I don't, I may implode, and I suspect that would be worse. So, all that being said, I really do appreciate the fact that God is a lot more gracious with whiners than I am. I count on it.  

Sunday, February 4, 2018

What's so funny?

As I spent time with my grandsons this past week, I was reminded of what a gift humor is. And what a mystery. To my knowledge, there is no other creature with the ability to appreciate humor. Even among humans, it’s hard to understand how humor can manifest itself in such weird ways.

Baby Justin, who turned 8 weeks old, has just started to smile. I mean legitimately smile, not those gas-passing smirks that are really nothing more than expressions of relief. While I was with him, I got him to laugh a few times by making goofy faces. It was glorious. A baby belly laugh is the ultimate high.

Nick is three-and-a half now, and his humor has evolved to butt jokes. He told me about ten knock-knock jokes in a row and the punch line to every one of them was, butt. I suspect that with his friends in day care, all someone has to say is the word butt and everyone cracks up. It gets them every time. I recall seeing comedians like Lenny Bruce back when profanity was taboo, and every time he said fuck (which was quite often), he got a laugh. It always felt like a cheap laugh to me, and it wasn’t really all that funny after the 50th time. The audience was laughing out of nervousness, knowing the comedian had just stepped outside the confines of what’s socially acceptable by using a naughty word. Hearing Nick laugh at words like butt and fart, I can see now that laughing at words considered naughty really is at the humor level of a three year old.

As an older, wiser woman than I was when I was interested in coupling with men, I would advise any person seeking a life partner not to overlook the importance of a sense of humor. While I suspect everyone does have some sense of humor, it’s important to notice exactly what they find humorous. I should have paid more attention to this with my ex-husband. We rarely laughed at the same things. I would be watching a comedy, laughing my head off and see him sitting on the couch looking like the Great Sphinx of Egypt. It’s not that he didn’t laugh. He did. But, as I recall, usually when he was laughing, it was at his own jokes.

For a while I dated a really good man I’ll call Poindexter. Once he took me to see Larry the Cable Guy, who ended up telling a lot of jokes about Mexicans that I found offensive. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh. In fact, if I had driven myself, I would have gotten up and walked out. Everyone in the arena, including Poindexter, was laughing hysterically. For a moment, I wondered, what's the matter with me that I can't laugh at these jokes along with everyone else? But then I came to my senses and wondered, what's the matter with all these people that they think this is funny? On another occasion, I took Poindexter with me to hear David Sedaris. This time the tables were turned. Everyone in the concert hall was enjoying David Sedaris. As I laughed, Poindexter had a blank look on his face. “I don’t get it,” he said. What!? How is that possible?! On the basis of those two events, I should have ended our relationship immediately. But of course, I had to hang in there for a couple more years trying to make something work that was obviously never going to work. Humor doesn’t lie, folks. 

It seems to me that you can tell a lot about a person by the kinds of things they laugh at. Is it a pie in the face? A punny phrase? An ironic twist that you didn’t see coming? I admit that I enjoy it all. But it’s the absurdities of life that really get me going, especially the absurdity of my own life. There have been times when something from my day struck me as so funny that I’d wake up in the middle of the night laughing about it.

The people I enjoy most in my life are gigglers. We get so tickled together that we’re holding our stomachs as tears stream down our cheeks. Whenever I meet someone I can giggle with like that, I feel like there is a bond between us that transcends time and space. It’s as sweet as any holy communion I know.

A former co-worker once told me that he never laughed as much working with anybody as he did with me. I considered that high praise. He was someone I could giggle with. Although it’s been twenty years since we worked together, I still remember moments with him and chuckle. I don’t laugh as much these days and I’m not sure why. Grief often overwhelms me.

After spending time with my grandsons, I realize how much I miss laughing, really laughing in the moment, without the shadows of sorrow tempering my joy. If you’re reading this and care to offer a prayer for me, please pray that I will find myself free to laugh more in the days to come.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Holding the mystery of the incarnation in my arms

For the second time in my life, I am blessed to hold a newborn baby in my arms during the days leading up to Christmas. My daughter Gretchen was born on December 5, 1978. 39 years and one day later, she gave birth to her second son. Nothing humbles me like holding a tiny baby during Advent as I ponder the mystery of God-with-us.

Just as I did with his mother, I rock Justin to sleep in the glow of Christmas tree lights singing, “Silent Night.” And I think about how Jesus began his life in much the same way. With teeny-tiny fingers and toes. A soft spot and fragile little neck that couldn’t support his head. Crying when he was hungry, or wet, or tired. Nourished by his mother’s milk. Cuddled into contentment as he “sleeps in heavenly peace.” I hold him and ponder, How could the Creator of the Universe become so vulnerable, so helpless… so small? 
When my daughter was born, my heart was so full that I couldn’t imagine how it could ever hold as much love for any other human being as it held for her. But along came my son Ben, and I realized that I had been wrong. Yes, I could love another human being just as much as I loved my daughter. Who knew my heart was so big?
Then, with the birth of my first grandson, it happened again. I felt my heart swell and I couldn’t imagine how I could ever love another person the way I loved Nicholas. And yet, by golly, it's happened once again as a six-pound bundle named Justin holds my heart in his miniature hands. It astounds me to experience how the love of each one of them fills my heart completely, while the love of the many doesn’t diminish the love of the one. 
What I appreciate most about being a parent and a grandparent is the transformation it stirs within me. God knows I’m far from the most loving person in the world, and yet my children have stretched me to love in a way that is far beyond me. It brings me as close to divine love as I have ever experienced. Even at that, I know that God’s love for us far surpasses anything I could ever grasp. It’s a parent’s (or a grandparent’s) immeasurable love for one newborn baby extended to every baby ever born. 
More than just a mushy feeling, it’s love that empties itself completely for the sake of the beloved. That’s the wonder of the incarnation. It’s the hope of all the world entrusted to the world. The God of Love trusting in the love of humans. 
The sheer humility of the Word made flesh humbles me. I can hardly get my mind around it. And yet, when I’m holding my newborn grandson, somehow in a way that transcends language or reason, I feel like I am holding the mystery of the incarnation in my arms.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Beyond the Manger

Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, right? Yes, and no. It’s about the birth of Jesus, yes, but that’s not all it’s about. The birth of Jesus embodies something profound about God that we often lose in the swaddling clothes and the manger and the straw.

I’m talking about the incarnation here. The word incarnation means an embodiment of a god or a spirit in an earthly form. Christianity, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism all include the concept of incarnation in their belief system. Within Christianity, John’s gospel introduces an incarnational worldview as he begins with the proclamation that the “Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Father Richard Rohr talks about four possible world views that people can adopt.

The first is the materialistic world view. This perspective says the only stuff that’s real is the stuff you can measure, the stuff you can see and touch. It’s the perspective usually taken by a scientific thinker.

The second world view is spiritual. Those who adopt this view spiritualize everything. They don’t take the material world seriously. What you see out there is just an illusion. The real stuff is the inner stuff. It’s the perspective usually taken by a religious thinker.

And then, there’s a third world view that Father Rohr labels as the theological. People with this view spend their lives working really hard to put the material world and the spiritual world back together again.

Now, all three of these views are based on dualistic thought, an either/or way of looking at life. Something is either good or it’s bad. It’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s a rigid way of looking at things and lies at the heart of fundamentalism. And it’s not at all the Jesus Way of being in the world. The Jesus Way honors mystery and paradox.

And that brings us to the fourth world view that Father Rohr identifies. It’s a way of seeing the world that Jesus came to claim: an incarnational world view, which says that matter and spirit have never been separated. While the theological world view works so hard at cramming God back into the material world, the incarnational world view says that you don’t have to cram God back into the world because God never left the world. God has been here all along.

Ironically, the birth of Christ embodies the incarnational nature of God, and yet every year when we celebrate Christmas, we become preoccupied with how we’re going to split it in two. There is the sacred celebration of Christmas and there is the secular celebration of Christmas and we see them as two separate things. Heaven forbid we should mix the two. We don’t sing “Jingle Bells” at a Christmas Eve service because that has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas, we’ll say. And yet, we certainly don’t want to give up “Jingle Bells” and only celebrate Christmas as a sacred holiday. That’s no fun. The implication is, of course, that the sacred celebration is meaningful and the secular celebration is fun. It’s either one or the other, but it can’t be both. So, during the month of December we all adopt split personalities. I wonder if that adds to the stress of the season in a way we don’t even realize.

Well, here’s the thing. The whole point of the incarnation is that there is no line dividing the sacred from the secular. God is a part of it all. Singing a medley that includes both “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” is completely appropriate from an incarnational perspective. In fact, the way that the celebration of Christmas first came into being is an acknowledgement of this. Originally, it was a blend of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

So it always amuses me when I hear Christians getting all hot under the collar because Christmas has become so secularized, as if that is some kind of an affront to God. The only thing that is an affront to God is a dualistic worldview.

The big thing about living in a split universe is that you are always having to decide where God is and where God isn’t. You get all caught up in judging, based on the false assumption that God is selectively present in the world around us. God is in America, but God is not in Iran. God is in Barack Obama but not Donald Trump. God is in Bach but not Lady Gaga. God is in Ascension Lutheran Church but not the Hindu Temple. If we spend all our time determining where God is and where God isn’t, it’s not much of a leap to say, “God is in me but not in you.”

When we live with an incarnational worldview, there’s no decision to be made about where God is and where God isn’t. Yes, we find God wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. But we don’t stop there. We look at the world around us, seeing God in it all.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Is the World About to Turn? (a reflection on #metoo)

There have been moments in my lifetime that I never thought I’d live to see. Schooled in post-WW2 America, I learned about the Soviet Union and countries we referred to as “behind the Iron Curtain.” I thought that curtain would always be there. Now, not only is the curtain gone, but so is the Soviet Union, and that Wall in Berlin, with all that it represented. I never thought I’d live to see it. Similarly, when Obama was elected President, I was blown away. I never could have imagined I would have a black President in my lifetime. Then again, when marriage equality became the law of the land, I was in disbelief. Was this really happening?

Moments like these are surreal to me. They embody the words of the rousing hymn we sing in church, “Canticle of Turning.” Based on Mary’s Magnificat, it’s meant to be sung with gusto and always beckons me to stomp my feet and dance in the aisles. (Someday I might actually DO it!)

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn!

I’m feeling a bit of this about the #metoo movement as women who long have been silent are finally speaking out about their experience with men who have harassed, assaulted, and violated them on so many levels. But this change feels a bit different, because this time it involves me and my experience. I’m not watching it unfold as an outsider. I’m standing on the inside and am not sure what to think. I’m having trouble objectively grasping the significance of the moment; it's hard for me to perceive that the world may be turning while my head is spinning.

I’m so accustomed to a world filled with toxic masculinity and men who believe women exist for the sole purpose of pleasing them that I can’t imagine one where this is no longer acceptable. I’ve lived the past 65 years deferring to male power, fearful of male power, enraged over male power. It’s been a helpless feeling that I haven’t dared express because, well, that’s just the way it is. I've often thought that if I could suck it up and go with the flow, I’d be a lot happier, as if I myself were the problem.

These days it seems that we’re hearing about sexual misconduct cases involving famous people every day, if not every hour. Some of them go back decades. We have quite a backlog to clear away because women have never felt safe revealing the truth. They haven’t felt that their voices would be heard, and their only recourse has been to remain silent. Now their silence has been broken in a big way, and we’re seeing how prevalent the problem is. And just to be clear, the problem isn’t only that men prey upon women. The larger problem is that this has been acceptable.

Of course, all men are not predators. Every man in my life hasn’t disrespected me as a human being; most have been decent guys. Yet, even among those who haven’t worked against me, I haven’t always felt that they were on my side. Their default setting seems to be looking the other way, rather than confronting the misogyny
that so blatantly affects half the population. Even among the good guys, my hurt and anger have been dismissed and not taken seriously. Rarely have I heard a man ask, “If she weren’t a woman, would it be acceptable for her to be treated this way?” But guess what, guys. That question is always on my mind.

Like nearly every woman I know, I have endured moments of fear, powerlessness, shame and humiliation at the hands of men. I don’t need to enumerate them here. But I will say that I have been changed by the women who have bravely chosen to confess “me too.” It has given me the courage to say “me too”, as well. Doing so has freed me. So, whether the world is changing or not, my world is changing.

It grieved me when I saw my daughter post #metoo on Facebook, knowing that she hasn’t been spared the trauma women suffer at the hands of men who think they are entitled to prey upon women. It rips my heart out that I wasn’t able to protect her from that. Back when she came forward and reported what had happened to her, I was at her side, so proud of her courage. But those in authority didn’t believe her. The world hadn’t turned soon enough for her.

Now I have grandsons who still have the opportunity to grow up in a different world, not just for women, but for all people. May kindness and compassion be their way in the world.

For all of us, but especially for our those who come after us, I’m praying that the world is about to turn.

Friday, November 17, 2017

It Just Doesn't Matter

One of my favorite speeches of all time is given by Bill Murray in the movie Meatballs. He’s a counselor at a camp for losers and they’re getting geared up to get their butts whooped for the umpteenth straight year by the hoity-toity camp on the other side of the lake. His motivational message to the campers is that “it just doesn’t matter.” He works them into a frenzy as they all rise to their feet chanting, “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” Oh, I love that! I often silently chant it to myself when I catch myself getting all caught up in some effort to prove my worthiness to the world around me. It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!

When my daughter was in high school she was one of the kids in her class who was competing to be the valedictorian. This wasn’t anything her father or I encouraged. It came from someplace within her. She pushed herself to be the best. Well, I believe it was sometime in the middle of her junior year that she got an A- in some rinky-dink class like health. She felt it was unjustly given and she fought it, but the A- stood. I did a little happy dance. “Thank God!” I said, “Now you can stop worrying about being perfect.” I mean, really. It just doesn’t matter. I recall that at the time she was a bit miffed by my reaction, but she laughs about it now. (She still finished third or fourth in her class and got to make a speech at graduation, so she was pleased with herself in the end.)

I was a band kid all though junior high and high school. And the thing about being a band kid is you really can’t care a whole lot about what the other kids think of you. You’re so far from being cool that you’re just not in the running to be anything but a world-class dork. So, you get to go through high school with this it-just-doesn’t-matter attitude. That’s why the band kids always have more fun than anybody. Being a band kid is great training for the rest of life. It helps you put things into perspective. So much of what people strive for in this life just doesn’t matter.

We spend our lives trying to prove that we’re better than other people. Our house is bigger. Our car is faster. Our yard is greener. Our children are better behaved. Our job title is more prestigious. We have more degrees hanging on the wall, or more published articles, or more awards. We’re thinner. Our teams win more games. We get invited to more parties. Our church has more members or a bigger building or a more exciting youth group. Our country is more powerful or more prosperous. Oh, the list could go on and on. We are so busy proving that our lives are worthwhile that we can’t see how, in the grand scheme of things, this stuff just doesn’t matter.

If we’re lucky, we have an opportunity to see what doesn’t matter and what really does. Most often, it comes when we are confronted with failure or disappointed by reality. We get fired. We end up with a debilitating disease. Our children get into some serious trouble. Our marriage falls apart. We have to file for bankruptcy. Something happens to strip away the fa├žade we’ve created to prop ourselves up in the eyes of the world. It may feel like the end of life as we know it, but if we’re smart we won’t let the opportunity pass us by. It’s our chance to consider what really does matter.

Of course, none of what we strive so hard to achieve matters a hill of beans to God. In fact, this is the very stuff that keeps us from experiencing an authentic relationship with God. We can never really come clean with God until the trappings that we hide behind are stripped away. That’s what Jesus taught us when he said that if you want to gain your life, first you’re going to have to lose it. He wanted us to see how so much of what we think is so gosh darn important just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you follow the law to the letter and pert near never do anything wrong. It doesn’t matter if you hang out with all the best people. It doesn’t matter if you have all the right answers. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich. It doesn't matter if you're admired by all the people in your community. None of the standards and measures we use to judge who is better than whom matter. It just doesn’t matter.

But here are some of the things that do matter, according to Jesus: humility, honesty before God, mercy, kindness, compassion. It’s not what you get that matters, but what you give. In short, what matters most is love. The opportunities we have to give and receive love are what make our lives worthwhile. It’s love that binds us to God. Wherever love is, God is.

Blessed are those who come to realize what matters and what doesn’t.