Kristof at Church

When I saw the video that Nicholas Kristof posted on Facebook yesterday I was shocked that the link carried me to a set housing Kristof and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels on Willow Creek's main stage. (bizarre that I highlighted their 'sanctuary' in just my last post.)

It also comes on the cusp of this article, an anthropologist arguing that if liberal politicians would simply tweak some of their language they would in little time with minimal effort win over a large chunk of evangelical voters. My husband, brother, and I have been in an e-conversation about whether or not one can differentiate fundamentalists from evangelicals in this context. However, I bring it up to say that the Kristof video is a fascinating experiment in liberals and conservatives mixing company, and doing so well.

I see Nicholas Kristof as a modern day prophet. His work, in the company of his wife Sheryl WuDunn, on gendercide, sex trafficking, and female empowerment in the developing world inspires even the most cynical. He speaks for the marginalized by sharing the story of the individual with the masses to effectuate a response among the privileged, and he does so by derailing the (ab)use(s) of poverty porn; he upholds the struggling women and girls with dignity and awe... And a difference he makes.

Bill Hybels sits beside him in the video clip with a beautiful tan that I assume he picked up while sailing on his yacht. Despite my ambivalence about megachurch efforts to seek social justice causes (who knew that some of them are trying to now), Hybels warrants more respect from me than any other evangelical pastor because he makes so much effort to grow alongside his congregation. He does not claim a monopoly on (conservative) theology; he does not participate in trendy/swanky/hipster-y culture topics that circulate regularly in evangelical subculture (consider Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and that dork in TX who are all obsessed with sex these days). I see Hybels as more concerned with following God and winning lost souls to Christ in ways that are relevant and transformative for suburban chicago-ites. He's less concerned with being cool. He tries really hard to be a good, authentic evangelical. It just so happens that it has also made him a lot of money, and pretty cool in his circles, in the meantime.

Hybels reads Half the Sky, and it's clear by the time he gets to the second question in this video interview with Kristof that his world is turned upside-down. Hybels cannot finish articulating many of his initial questions. (I've never heard Hybels say, "uh..." when public speaking.) He doesn't know where to go with all the dramatic facts about gendercide and prostitution and plights of women in a global context. The viewer sees him repositioning his body several times during the interview as if to speak on behalf of the thousands of followers in the congregation, "we are all uncomfortable with this. We don't talk about things like this in here. This isn't the individualized, hyper-pious, feel-good mantra we are used too...but keep talking, because we need to know and respond to this. Educate us, Kristof." And in his generous, unassuming, incredibly kind way, Kristof fields the questions, engages the congregation, and puts Bill at ease. I find it astounding and worth emulating. Not that I wanted Kirstof to bury Hybels or Willow Creek for just now waking up to these "liberal" issues, we just don't ever see these groups in dialogue because it is so uncomfortable. I was nervous at several points in the interview, and Kristof kept putting me at ease too with his graciousness and authenticity. Neither leader was trying to be someone other than who they were, and it worked.

Hybels' honesty, Kristof's generosity and intellect, tempered by a setting that is willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of their gospel is moving. The first time I watched the video I was annoyed with Hybel's naiveté. (Because I already have this all figured out, right?) The second time I was overcome with emotion at his earnestness to grapple with such realities. Issues that even many liberals cannot acknowledge. The third time I watched it I cried with Hybels at the end when he asked Kristof why he does this work and  Kristof responded about the Polish nun in Congo.

It starts small for Kristof. It's the grain of yeast and the mustard seed. It's telling the story of one woman in one country. It's reaching out to one church in one suburb. It's writing one op-ed for the Times in an effort to conjure up a response. And it's all so damn honest and humble. Kristof speaks, and writes for that matter, with no pretense. I want to be best friends with him and his family. I want to drink wine with them at the dinner table during transformative conversations that run late in the night. I want to travel to Cambodia with them. I want to learn from them and work with them. I want to know the women that he knows. And since I must do so indirectly through his work and vicariously through other higher profile people (like Bill Hybels even), I'll take what I can get. I can't believe I'm saying this, "Thanks Willow."

I won't even get in to how Kristof is a contemporary, married, privileged, educated, white, male redeeming so much for me by way of each category I just plugged him in to. So thank you, Kristof, for living from your heart and sharing it in ways that minister with peace.

Disclaimer: as tech savvy as mega-churches are, it's unfortunate that I cannot embed the video. I am not sure how long it will be accessible on Willow's website. And no, I did not watch the other videos in their current series on Hope. --Don't want to ruin a good thing, know what I'm sayin'?


Culture—Popped and Bought and Sought

There are so many points on which I'm a die-hard Anabaptist: Discipleship, Community, Pacifism, and radical-Reformation stuff to name a few of the biggies.

One way I do not do so well keeping in step with especially my Mennonite brothers and sisters is the whole counter-cultural thing. Theologically I totally get it and even uphold it to an extent. The notion that we are citizens of another kingdom, an eternal kingdom with no end, ruled by principles and ideas not-of-this-world. The whole 'aliens passing through' thing.

On the other hand, I reject this...at least I think I do.

Practically speaking, pop-culture fascinates me. Trends, celebrity, fandom, music, film, fashion—I find all of it intriguing and worth celebrating from an artistic vantage, definitely worth noting from a philosophical one.

So I find myself subconsciously looking for theologians who will help me articulate the balance of recognizing that capitalistic consumerism is no more my savior than is a complete Amish rejection. Enter Kathryn Lofton and her work Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. This interview is dated now, but the end of it points to something I value: Lofton's desires to explore how the American Dream is possibly corrupt. Duh, I mean, Yes! And yet we continue subscribing to the money mongering game of capitalism hoping (amidst our disdain for the rich) that the next time we play we will be the lucky ones who get rich quick.

Anyway, Lofton begins that for Oprah there is a symphonic way that consumption and religion are not in opposition to one another but in collaboration. She notes that in the past, American religious scholars have sought to untangle these ideas revealing their own ideas of what's sacred vs. profane. She gives us three principles for religion and culture:

1) religion in pop-culture. The crucifix in a pop music video.
2) pop culture in religion. The use of blogs by believers.
3) pop culture as religion. Fandom.

This is why Madonna was so offensive in the '80's (religion in pop culture) and mega-church malls were so annoying in the '90's (pop culture in religion), Lofton expains. The former is profane, the latter, crass commercialization of the sacred.

Like a Virgin
Willow Creek: my favorite megachurch

This is the part I underlined: If only we didn't imagine culture and religion as neatly divided, we may be less surprised by their ceaseless commingling. There have, as it turns out, always been pigeon sellers, in every temple.

Icon B
Icon A

I don't think the pigeon sellers in the temple bit is a copout. I constantly hear conservatives misquoting John's Jesus, "the poor will always be among you," in an effort to ignore the poor's plight—certainly not Lofton's point. This pigeon reference is not about ignoring the capitalistic ventures to continue engaging in consumeristic behaviors under the guise of generous gift-giving (ala Oprah), but instead, a finger pointing to the reality that the lines between American religion (especially Protestantism) and (pop)cultural memes are blurry at best. (If Niebuhr could have admitted this a half-century ago would contemporary Christians embrace culture differently today?)

And yet, neither does this merger, or blurring, or commingled reality of culture and religion (or whatever you want to label it) excuse those of us who seek value and meaning outside of American consumer culture, those of us who seek fandom in areas outside of pop culture but who also do not forbid pop culture (point #3, culture as religion). As a thirty-something, white, American, female, who rejects the promises of the American dream and who upholds the promise of the Beatitudes, how do I situate myself (and my parenting for that matter) in a way that neither over-values the accumulation of shit (i.e. material goods that pass away) nor under-values the call to be other-worldly, placing one's hope and esteem in a transcendent reality that stretches beyond the cosmos (figuratively speaking of course)? How do I do this?

Is it enough to reject Oprah's and TD Jakes' prosperity gospel?
Is it enough that I still use the first generation iPad (even though I also have an iPod, iPhone, Macbook Pro, and an old cracked-LCD Macbook)?
Is it enough when planning worship or imagining a new liturgical ritual that might appeal to the millennial generation that it embraces social justice concerns like not using an American mega-bank for our checking and savings accounts?

Don't answer. In my questioning I want to embrace the ambiguity. And realize further that the non-ubiquitous characteristics that I named at the start (the other core tenants of anabaptist belief) certainly supplement my efforts, or the efforts of the faith community, to live in culture, embrace culture, and push against culture when it needs redirecting. Right? Oprah's product is a practice, and her practice is her product. This is simplistic, bad theology. I will not be self-transformed by Oprah's or America's or Dr. Phil's or Nate Berkus' or Suzie Orman's product, but by the renewing of my mind (when I'm wearing my new dress from Anthropologie--kidding).

There will be more from me on this...I'm only through the first three chapters of Lofton and Oprah.


Paradox: Time or Space

Just recently have I allowed Abraham Joshua Heschel into my reading repertoire. Perhaps I did not know of his works earlier because of evangelicalism. Perhaps I did not read him when I first began learning of him because of a complacency in my own shallow knowledge of Holy Land disputes. Perhaps there are other reasons that don't really matter. But a few weeks ago while I was unable to lay down Israel: An Echo of Eternity, I found myself processing much of the philosophical and theological genius therein.

This work he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, and in the introduction his daughter confesses that so much of his intensity and sheer (arguably blind) devotion to his subject matter—Israel—may have been tempered by a later awareness of the condition of the Palestinian people had he not died prematurely. But this isn't really the focus of my thoughts anyway...too involved, intense, and polarizing for this simple blog.

Early in his argument, Heschel drops this bomb of genius, "To ignore the paradox is to miss the truth." He offers the example of a brief quote from Solomon's inaugural speech for the temple in 1 Kings, "The Lord dwells in thick darkness." A beautiful statement in an of itself, is it not? Heschel marks that although the Shekinah is everywhere, the experience of it is always somewhere because humanity always lives at a particular place. Here's an extended quote:

Living truth is the blending of the universal and the individual, of idea and understanding, of distance and intimacy, the ineffable and the expressible, the timeless and the temporal, body and soul, time and space. Even those who believe that God is everywhere set aside a place for a sanctuary. For the sacred to be sensed at all moments everywhere, it must also at this moment be somewhere.

A few pages later, the point strikes me vividly. It's a point that I, and my fellow post modern Christians, value beyond that of our former generations. It's a point that I beat loudly on a drum myself but received in a new pattern of reverberations at this hearing: "God is no less here than there. It is the sacred moment in which God's presence is disclosed. We meet God in time rather than in space, in moments of faith rather than in a piece of space."

I'm not enough of a scholar to fully unpack this. And I totally take his ideas out of the context of Jerusalem and apply them to contemporary church. Plus, as I consider further the idea of God-in-time before God-in-space, I must celebrate the gift of such awareness.

For those of us who find suspect ideas of anything absolute, especially truth(!), how freeing to think that more than some rational, modern, industrial approach to God's presence marking a place holy or not, God created not the temple first, but the Sabbath. Time. Moments to participate in the divine no matter the space. What a fabulous deconstruction of sacred and holy. (Reminds me of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.)

Here comes a gross over-simplification of such a beautiful idea, and yet, it's this practical situation that brings Heschel to life for me...

I think this is why I struggle so desperately to care about the missing sterling silver, custom-made, totally gorgeous, and yet stolen/missing/neglected communion ware that is so holy and sacred to my current church. I wish I had a photo of one of the goblets; they are amazing. And without taking time to describe the detail with which they were designed and the money they represent, I will say that the team of congregants responsible for their care offer no hesitation in defending their sacredness. To not handle these worship supplies with the utmost reverence and gentility is to defame all that the church represents. No hyperbole intended!

As worship director I continually had to negotiate a balance between the volunteers who so highly value these elements and the building services individuals who actually cleaned them as they would any other dirty cup of juice. As the volunteers themselves struggled to articulate what it is they actually ascribed to these pieces of shaped silver, I found myself fully able to empathize with their concern over something so special to the life of their church. On the other hand, I was/am wholly unable to understand the theological errors in such thinking. Had they known of my irreverence for such pieces of worship, errrr, expensive cups competing with God in stature, our relationship may have been marred—the concern for this part of worship undoubtedly this intense. How does such mis-shaped thinking originate?

I think one way is by limiting God to a certain space. In this case, communion is only special, i.e. sacred, if served
with the pristinely polished, silver cups. (Nevermind the fact that they make the juice taste like metal.) with the 'right' liturgy.
with the elements of the meal resting atop a meticulously ironed brocade cloth.
with the ministers seated in sturdy throne-like chairs in front of them.
and I could go on describing the ritual.
a ritual that in my opinion, which I never shared out of respect for those with whom I partook of the meal, is boring, out-of-context, and way too long.

So much so, that God-in-time collapses for me during this liturgical element that ought to be so central to the life of the church. (Here's where I get really honest) the elements of this ritual where I find God most manifest (the communal aspect, the humility, the simplicity and ordinariness of the act, etc.) are absent because of the damn silver. As I find myself longing to see/taste/hear/feel/sense God move, instead, all I hear is the clanking of the cups on the trays.

To ignore the paradox is to miss the truth, Heschel reminds me.

The paradox, especially one of faith, is uncomfortable and takes much effort to appropriate! But upon such integration sets free the believer to grapple with and explore more deeply the transcendent mystery of God. We are free to value the silver cups for the beauty of their design, celebrate the blacksmith artist who crafted them, and yes, collectively mourn the fact that tourists steal them because they are just that cool. But we are not limited in our divine encounters during a holy meal of remembrance and grace. The point is not lost if we allow ourselves the tension of paradox. We can remember that it's not the cup we honor but a carpenter servant who most likely offered the wine in some type of generously used, bacteria-infested, wooden goblet. The point is that we honor the carpenter.

So if the sacred is not partial to the secular, nor is it distinct from the secular but everywhere holy, then I want to embrace the totality of that Presence so fully that I do not miss it for fear of it seeming too misplaced.

At the end of his book, Heschel nearly comes full circle with this statement,

Are customs and ceremonies, are services and sermons, an adequate antidote to the massive dehumanization, to the emerging monsters of absurdity?...Ritual, loyalty, theology, remain deficient unless there is an ongoing responsiveness to the outbursts of immediate history, our own situations.

Being alive means being exposed to contradictions and defiance, facing challenge and disappointment. Religion may die when its truth becomes trite—its poetry a conceit, its observance inane. Truth becomes half-truth; worship, comfort; belief, vapid...To have faith is to be in labor.

And as a woman who types this while seven months pregnant, anticipating the arduous, joy-infused road to and of labor, all I can say is, "holy fuck." I'm alive! I'm in the middle of a really intense situation, and the church's rituals are dying. They labor not on the things of God but the accoutrements of this world. And the paradox is forgotten... the truth is being made trite...

(Congratulations if you bothered reading all of this rambling!)


I was surprised

The Christian Century recently featured an article on new ways of doing church outside the confines of denominationalism and traditional ordination requirements for their clergy. Duh.

Sometimes I wonder about these mainliners and their disconnect with culture—stuff Evangelicals have been in-tune with since their inception—things like technology, modes of churching, trendy ideas about theology. In part it's their theology that limits their interaction with culture, right? On the other hand, it's one of the reasons so many of their churches are flailing. Surely we can update ritual and liturgy without the end goal being to bring more people to 'salvation.'

Regardless, this issue of the CC annoyed me for a few reasons. One of the ideas featured in the article was a young person barista-ing at Starbucks as a way to meet new people and hopefully invite them to Bible Study. Really? This is as far as we have come in our ways of re-branding church? I find this insulting to the regulars of said coffee shop and completely arrogant on the part of said barista. What happened to serving coffee just to serve coffee? Why do the motives have to be so calculated and manipulative? ...how...how...well, how Evangelical. Why must church center on bringing people in? And if that's the goal (which I'm not favoring), then why can't you be direct about it? Why use Starbucks? And like I said, realize that this is not a new tactic. My funda-gelical childhood church used Krispy Kreme donuts fifteen years ago.

Secondly, the conversation about ordination was intriguing. Many of the leaders of new church movements are young, not yet ordained, but serving in leadership that traditionally requires such credentials and set-apart-ness. The holy collars themselves are blessed, aren't they? As the denominations themselves are struggling to remain vibrant and relevant (mainline and evangelical ones), they are now forced into re-evaluative roles regarding the legitimacy of such 'unorthodox' leadership. I'm glad they are finally asking these questions, again, even if they are about  thirty years behind culture. Who knows what will come of it.

In the meantime, I'm beginning yet my second job in ministry (this August) that would normally desire one who is ordained, but because so many (out of the church) care less about parish life and ordination these days, I am the hire regardless, I suppose. Pickin's are slim. That's not forced humility. That's a statement about how I find it weird that they are so okay with the fact that I'm not licensed or ordained. The first draft of the press release listed me as Rev. I actually want to be ordained but can't make it happen (been working on it for about five years now) because of all the ridiculous stuff one has to do in addition to the degree. Where is the balance? Why are the reins held so tenaciously by those in power?

Your churches are dying people! You have young people with new ideas, and you won't let them in because they ain't allowed to wear the stole yet, and they can't wear the stole yet because you worship your rules and regulations. Stop putting the protocols before the relationships.

Alas, the church continues to miss the point. What's new? Perhaps my surprise at how those of us mainliners who still care about the future of the church cannot critically engage her more. So I leave half-empty/half-filled (still depressing either way) worship services wondering how much longer the numbers will dwindle and how many more churches-turned-condominiums New England and New York will see in the next thirty years.

I'll have an iced grande decaf light mocha, hold the inauthentic community bible study. Thanks.


That Bitch is Gettin' Ripped Off

I had a few classroom experiences in seminary that will stick with me through the remainder of my life. This is one of them that I've been processing again in light of a homeless person I worshiped with at work.

I like the Message version of Luke 21's opening verses,

Just then he looked up ask saw the rich people dropping offerings in the collection plate. Then he saw a poor widow put in two pennies. He said, "The plain truth is that this widow has given by far the largest offering today. All these others made offerings that they'll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn't' afford--she gave her all!"

I was raised by my preachers and Sunday School teachers to extol this poor woman for her generosity and sincerity, her willingness to give-up something comfortable to show her devotion to God. Is this not what Jesus is doing in highlighting her deeds? hmmm...maybe...

My wealth and poverty professor told a story of reading this passage with a group of homeless people one evening in an intimate and urban discussion group. Prepared to offer an eloquent diatribe on the woman's gift, one of the more unkempt men in the group blurted out before my prof could begin, "That bitch is getting' ripped off!"

I absolutely think he's right. The text doesn't tell us what she was going to use the money for instead of offering it to the collection, but we can safely assume she wasn't saving for a new luxury car. She was poor and socially isolated. Probably eating a little less bread that evening as a result of her gift. Is that really what God requires of us? To go hungry or neglect our immediate needs in our devotion? She lived in a culture that devalued women, especially widows, and the religious establishment should have served as a place of refuge and acceptance. A place where she not only encountered dignity and respect, but charity and support. Is this not what God wishes for the disenfranchised--to find a home among those who have the means to offer support from communal a system of acceptance and value?

The pericope directly preceding this parable goes a bit like this,

With everybody listening, Jesus spoke to his disciples, "Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preen in the radiance of public flattery, bask in prominent positions, sit at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they'll pay for it in the end.

The pericope directly after the widow parable begins with this,

One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, "All this you're admiring so much--the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.

Okay, so we know in the latter part that Luke is predicting the death of Christ. But I think the point in the former pericope remains in the second as well, what or who are we worshiping? Are we serving our rituals? Our buildings? Our charismatic leaders? Our hope in sounding good, reliance on big words, and our fancy worship services? Awesome that the poor widow enters into the middle of this discussion and is arguably ripped off by all those who say they actually worship the Creator but miss the significance of Jesus' teaching here. And that even today with all of our scholarly approaches to our sacred texts, it isn't until we read and interact with the marginalized people themselves that we see a new point to this story--we continually miss the point of what it means to be a faith community.

Here is my struggle today:
These pictures show Riverside's front doors and outer entryways on Riverside Drive. Check out the detail in the chiseled limestone. They are stunningly gorgeous. The stone carvers were hired intentionally by Rockefeller because they were an impoverished immigrant family from Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. 

I'm not going to walk you through the who's who of the stone carvings beyond saying they represent inclusivity and progressive Christianity. You can see a small line of  urban towers in the first pic that represents both Jerusalem and New York. One of my Riverside books highlights that "the building is dedicated to a living ministry and to the glory of God." 

However, the large wooden doors, that I am very thankful are kept ajar during the day, are dry rotting. So, if for no other reason, should we spend thousands of dollars maintaining the building given the good she represents, who she stands for, and the artists who created her? Or is the $800,000(!!!) that has been budgeted for 2012 to restore the exterior wooden doors serving something or someone other than God and God's people? 

I have no idea. 

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. During our Wednesday evening gospel service the homeless who regularly hang out in the building often attend this service for the community and soup supper. As we were short on ushers one particular evening I was carrying the collection plate from person-to-person. My homeless friend I mentioned at the start of the entry dropped a single quarter into the plate this night. It clinked as it hit the side of the plate. $.25. That's all. That's all that was had. I saw the person digging deep into a pocket for it. I had to pause with the plate for a moment while the paper wrapped around it was removed. The lump in my gut lurched up into my throat. I was glad for the opportunity to remove myself from the service to drop the collected offerings into the counting bag and then into the safe with the escorting help of a security guard. (Yes, we take our offerings very seriously.) The quarter was the only coin, most of the other spontaneous donations were 10's and 20's. This particular individual has been living in the church hallway for several weeks.

All I can think, "That bitch is gettin' ripped off." 

P.S. In know way am I accusing Riverside of not caring about her community. I just wonder where we are to draw the line that demarcates the love for our buildings and art more than the needs of God's people. Damn these issues of the heart.


I need to see this soon

So, I'm addicted to Smash. I watched the first two episodes at the proper air date and time then fell away (I won't blame it on my ridiculous and immature addiction to the Bachelor on ABC that airs the same night...shhhhh, no one knows I watch this stupid throw-back to patriotism and female objectification). Then I had the proverbial D.C. too late in the day; that mixed with a good couch-nap left me awake most of the night wondering how I was going to survive the clock change as well. What better time for a Hulu Smash marathon?

Watching the latest three episodes in immediate succession only confirmed something I've known since high school: it's a good thing I can't sing on pitch or I would be trying to make it in musical theatre. The ads on hulu are beyond redundant. But the one for Once--A New Musical intrigued me. I started reading about it and finally downloaded the album today.

Love. It.

Here is a screen shot of my favorite page from the booklet. (Why can't I copy a photo of it?)

Okay, so you can't really see it, much less read the font. It's a bit by the author about creating the workshop in the basement of a Boston church. Without yet having seen the show it seems like a fascinating mix of pomo-culture with a timeless tune of love and passion. Each character plays their own instrument, making him/her indispensable.

The whole is not only the sum of its parts, but the whole is better than the individual parts. She writes, "The alchemy of different instruments, different voices can hit the air and become something gorgeous." I hope they've succeeded.

The Times reviewer isn't overly generous, but I still think I'm going to love it. I already know I love it that they kept the original Falling Slowly as heard in the movie and winner of Academy Award for best song. Click here to hear it. Anyway, can't wait to see it.


Women Warriors, Feminine Fabulous

I read Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof's book, Half the Sky when flying to South Africa a few years ago, right after the book hit the shelves in '09 actually. Traveling to Cape Town with family and a few others to engage in some humanitarian efforts proved amazing minus the African-based, Tennessee-sponsored organization we traveled through, which was ridiculously conservative on all fronts. (Just to be an ass I donned my Barak Obama t-shirt more than once while there, and it had the desired effect.) Before I share how the book came to life for me, I want to say that I despise poverty porn--you know, the images and videos we see on melodramatic commercials that make us feel guilty for the money haphazardly spent on the six pack of beer in our fridge. Half the Sky transcends this category by introducing us to women in intimate ways of discovery and vulnerability.

The township we gathered in, Overcome Heights, portrays a huge irony even in its name. The refugees dwelling in the corrugated tin shacks on the southern peninsula sand dunes of Cape Town were not empowered to overcome anything in their lives. I found the half-rotten wooden sign holding the name offensive. We were inviting the inhabitants to TB testing, along with other general medical tests like blood pressure checks. A group of women who lived in the township met us each morning to walk us through the narrow outdoor corridors and into the bowels of poverty and destitution to invite their neighbors to the testing site.

It's also worth saying that I think slum tourism is despicable. If you google "Cape Town Township" an option to further your search automatically pops up as "Township Tourism." This multiplies rubber-knecking interstate car-wreck voyeurism to levels of obscenity. I get angry sometimes at the NYC tour buses driving through Harlem. Standing on the Amsterdam Ave. sidewalk waiting for my daughter's school bus to drop her off on the corner of a giant subsidized housing complex while tourists snap photos can easily leave me irate on our walk home. All this to say, I'm not posting any pictures of the people I met, except this one of a boy playing at the bus stop.

I saw a woman who had been burned by acid. She didn't want to meet us. But I felt like I already knew her thanks to WuDunn and Kristof.

Marsha, our guide and mother of two toddlers who also lived with her mother introduced us to a good friend. This girlfriend, err, nineteen-year-old woman, had three children under five living in one room with cardboard box flooring to keep the sand at bay. Of course she was prostituting herself to feed her growing family. Where did the kids go while she was working? She did not want us to stay long. We moved on after a quick greeting. A piece of my heart still sits on the cardboard in that room not knowing how to respond or speak. But again, I thank WuDunn and Kristof for giving me permission to meet her.

Most transformative for me, aside from the trail of unchaperoned kids under age 5 that walked with us throughout each day (because I passed out Smarties and stickers), happened unexpectedly for all of us, including Marsha.

A woman running a daycare about a mile deep into the township where the crime rates escalate through the tops of the dunes in the darkness of night, and the women succumb to terrors that police cannot reach.

The subtitle of the pulitzer prize winning book is "Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."

The men of the township (on the whole) spend their days smoking at the corner, playing barefoot soccer in the nearby glass-infested field, or simply absent from the routines of fetching water from the central spicket, chasing the children to school, or working themselves. This woman called to us as we passed by unaware because the children saw my candy donations and were anxious to greet us. Turning at the sound, we stood stunned as we saw this woman's space. Filled with at least ten children, she had one stuffed Barney animal, a plastic walker with no batteries, and one pillow on the floor for reading time. (I'm not sure what she read to them.) She had a daily routine taped to the wall including snack-time, hand-washing, and nap. Otherwise, the children played in the sand, I guess. Once my Smartie supply was drained we inquired of her ongoing needs and promised to get her some of the monetary goods she requested. I had brought a shopping bag of infant shoes my own kids had grown out of. I felt stupid handing them to her. "Here," I thought, "I hope these help. I'm sorry I'm such a rich stupid fucker that I buy new shoes for my kids every few months."

She spoke to us of her own misery in watching these young toddlers walk the alleys alone while their mothers were forced to leave them for work, usually as housekeepers in the affluent white neighborhood across town. The mothers paid the woman about $1 per week to watch their children. The mothers were able then to provide food for dinner and snacks for the day with their income (notice I didn't say lunch). And the mother of the daycare could do the same for her own children.

Here is the other side of the city.

THIS is what I understand Half the Sky to embrace, promote, and hep us understand.

Last moment of sharing: While we were waiting in another crowded slum hallway embedded in the shiny tin, standing sticky and ashy in the hot sun, I asked Marsha what it feels like to meet with various groups of white people each month, show them her territory of life, receive their pity, to have them return about their business after a good self-pat-on-the-back at the end of the week. I asked if she was ever angered by it or frustrated by the injustice of white supremacy, corrupt governments building a state-of-the-art World Cup soccer stadium while forgetting its people in Cape Town, etc. She looked directly into my eyes for an extended moment before answering.

She thoughtfully responded, "When you are a mother trying to protect your kids from the horrors of night, and you are working to bring home a simple loaf of bread for the dinner table each night, you will take whatever help you can get. It doesn't matter what color their skin is or how long they stay."

Not much left to say after that.

I will never understand. And I won't ever be able to do enough to fix the atrocities of Overcome Heights.

I'm learning though, that I can be angry on Marsha's behalf, and on behalf of the woman running the daycare, and on behalf of the women cleaning the houses of South African wine-makers, and on behalf of those forced into prostitution and rape, and on behalf of all who are named in works like Half the Sky.

And I'm s...l...o...w...l...y... very, very slowly, coming to a point in my own spirituality that allows me to say that my anger does not need to manifest as guilt or pity. It can activate into something stronger, more productive, more sustaining and life giving.

March is Women's History Month. Yesterday, the 8th, was International Women's Day. There are lots of organizations, especially those focusing on women, like CARE who are celebrating this month with all sorts of education and awareness bits. But I wonder, do you know about Kiva? Kiva began a few years ago by a young American woman and her husband (I actually took classes with her brother in seminary), and the success of the non-profit has sky-rocketed since. It's micro-lending to specific women across the world of developing countries. You pick which women from the website you want to support as they begin their business ventures. Once your loan is repaid (you choose the amount) you can re-lend to another woman. This month, new users get a free $25 loan to start their involvement. So go start one, please. Thank you.

That''s the point of all this. Just to share my love of Kiva. Sorry it took me so long to get here.

One last thing, it is going to be the women who change the world and eradicate poverty. Each chapter in the WuDunn/Kristof book begins with an awesome quote. I like best the one commencing chapter 2, a sentence from Florence of Arabia: "Women might just have something to contribute to civilization other than their vaginas."


Can Someone Please Help Me Understand This?

I mean, I'm all about women's liberation and love a good celebration of the capabilities of the female body. And I do love the iconic Demi Moore pose (way back in 1991). Although I do wonder what her son has to say about it now. But come on, Jessica Simpson, really? Claudia, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and now Jessica Simpson? Really? For me this crosses from let's-acknowledge-the-beauty-of-a-woman right into how-can-I-skankify-something-as-fantastic-as-pregnancy...Oh, I know, let's put a giant yellow ring right on top of my nipple! I'm feeling a little embarrassed for her. Plus could they have touched up her arms and hips anymore? Please, I'm serious, help me understand! I'm open to a new perspective. On behalf of American hoochies, I apologize, Demi.


Space | Place | Haste

First: Haste
Do you ever want to tell people to freakin' slow down?

Warning: this post is really random and covers about six topics.

I think this idea alone significantly spurs on my love for the elderly. Perhaps I've written on here before of my devotion to old-man-professors. (My husband will be one soon enough after all.) I completed my entire undergrad degree under the tutelage of an 80-year-old spiritual genius who swam in the school pool every morning at 5am. My favorite professors in seminary were the soft-spoken grandpas. My favorite congregants in the church are the cranky and authoritative, but supremely loving senior women. I preached a sermon once at PMC and the opening line was "Old people rock my world."--it was a very young congregation. With life comes experience comes wisdom comes a level of self-security that the rest of us only dream of. Maybe this is one reason, aside from the brittle bones, that you rarely need to tell a senior citizen to slow down. If we are not going to take the time to listen, then the loss is ours. I want NYC to get this holy concept.

Enter The Riverside Church.

I won't take time speaking of its architectural splendor, Rockefeller's endowment, her majestic organ and carillon, nor do I plan to take up your time with stories of limestone carvings that can bring tears to your eyes, a golden Jesus suspended from the ceiling, and the pulpiteers who positioned it on the ecclesial map of churches to follow. It's all on the website anyway. The parts of this community that I most love and adore are the elderly members doing their best to keep it alive.

As I just begin to process the sixteen months of my employment in this community (I wrote that cover letter after all so many months ago), and as I view the stained glass of the Nave first thing from my bedroom windows every morning, I am struck time and again at the amount of space the building itself covers on Manhattan Island.

Second: Space
Remember there is no room on Manhattan, at least not unless you have a small (or gigantic) fortune to actually afford housing here. Most of Manhattan-ites live in nooks so small, in buildings so high it leaves the rest of the country stunned dizzy. Side note: We managed to find one small cranny of Central Park where if you situate your eyes at a specific perspective during the proper time of blossoming Spring with your body half-reclined into a contortion underneath a willow tree, there are not any skyscrapers in view. It's actually quite astounding for the fraction of a second that you can hold the twisted pose. Compare this to the view from the top of 30 Rock. (I refuse to pay the fee to elevate up to the peak of the Empire State Building.) The buildings that stand so majestic, threatening to pierce the sky, even a tree cannot block from view, from below they quickly shrink from the peak of one still taller. Yet, from the top of 30 Rock one can view in the northwesterly direction the spires of the Riverside tower as it borders the Hudson River. Something so triumphant and erect looks small and fragile. We lose this perspective in the haste of our daily living here in NYC. Everything around us becomes bigger than life--I wonder if because our time and space is so minimal.

One more bus to catch, subway doors to hold ajar, taxis to hail, groceries to manhandle for three more blocks, kids to bark across the avenue, complete strangers offering advice on how to parent, wind whipping your scarf in ways that blind you...the exhilaration and energy bustling in the streets literally never stops. I love it. But the rushing gets tiresome. The crowds overwhelming. The difficulty of running errands difficult to negotiate. So much so, that one easily loses perspective on the ways the rest of the world meanders about. It often makes me want to recreate the Ferris Bueller Sears Tower scene with forehead pressed against a glass panel a mile up in the sky to silence the busyness below into ant-like maneuvers of survival. That's what the top of 30 Rock does. You can only escape life-of-crazy by going up.

Until you meet the senior citizen residents of Manhattan.

Moving up the crowded sidewalks of Broadway with a walker immediately slows your world down to normalcy. Crossing a mega-avenue with a shuffling friend in icy weather creates more time to see all that I miss when chasing the kids on their scooters. Understanding the time that elapses between destination points when entering a crowded bus with a wheelchair only occurs to me when I'm inconvenienced by it as a fellow rider. Noticing the mundane of life sometimes feels next to impossible here. And yet, I claim that the simplicity of life is where I see God. No wonder I have missed this while living here, yes God and simplicity. My friends at Riverside have unknowingly done well to keep this alive for me on our lunch outings and through conversations about the trials of urban dwelling for those who are differently abled, but unable to leave the island.

Can one still find enough space and
can one slow down their haste enough to
create a sacred place in such a frenetic race

Third: Place
Wendell Berry is my brother's guru. (This and this are two blogs he started and maintains. That's him playing cricket with his King's College team in London on the second link.) Berry along with other great writers like Richard Rohr and Tich Nhat Hanh speak to the imperative of having a place--a home. In a reflection on the genius of Berry, after having spent an intimate Sunday afternoon with Wendell and his wife, Tonya, in the kitchen of their Kentucky farm home talking coal and other lofty agrarian topics, my brother writes the following,

We had been standing on the porch for several moments noticing the sheep on the southwest side of the house. We also noticed the vertical climb from the riverbank one must make to arrive on the porch...The aesthetics of the place reminded me of him, harangued, but in a good way. Everything here had a purpose and had been used and lived in. I aspire to live in my place as well as the Berry family appeared to live in theirs...When I put questions on the table I was consistently baffled by how smoothly he picked them up and dealt with them. We were sitting with a master of conversation. The work necessary for being as such had been done in the quiet of his own home and fields. It would be silly to try and name-drop and click through power point slides in his presence. Your only option is to be honest and thoughtful and, well, honest. As we sat in his kitchen for those several hours there was probably more silence than talking. It was ok to be quiet here. So often, there is nothing to say and yet we blandish each other with worthless chatter about how impressive we are. 

                                                        (Mr. Berry on his farm, Lanes Landing)

Might we all be so able and ready to create a place for people that welcomes silence, entertains new friends, and creatively speaks to the mystery of God at work. To think so deeply, live so consciously, and welcome so graciously proves daunting when we cannot slow down or find enough space to be ourselves, much less know ourselves. Unhurried living that celebrates community when it seems as if the space for such does not exist. As Berry taught this to Kyle, this is what the strident and savvy NY women at Riverside have helped me to learn and embrace. I'm convinced this is where God lives in Manhattan. Even if there is not enough space, God's place resides anyway. I'm glad to have met her here in this way of still, lingering lunch dates, intentional conversation, and ardent spirituality. What a surprise.


Don't Wanna be an American Idiot

Soon after we left LA and arrived in NYC I sat in the balcony of the St. James Theatre trying to contain my weeping as I watched American Idiot.

The expression of anger and indignation resonated so powerfully within my core that while we were eating at Sardi's afterward (a hilariously dated and overpriced restaurant down the street) I could only identify with the depressed, couch-dwelling character of the show (stage right throughout).

(I couldn't find a video of the entire opening number, "American Idiot;" so if you have one send it my way.)

The jolting onset of intense media action,
                                           jarring electric sound, and
                                                     head-banging choreography awoke in me this intense rage
against the Man.
against war.
against chaos and disaster.

...arguably themes of the show and album.

And yet, like Rent will always reveal for me, the community that was broken and re-created from the shambles of atrocity and terror shows a depth originating from no kind of kindness--it's one that only stems from piecing together what's left after a bomb erupts and shatters the foundations of our lives.

This clip is annoying in the transitions but does well to throw you through the moods of the show.

They sing, "welcome to a new kind of tension...where everything is meant to be okay."

Is it...going to be okay?

I don't think so.

Hence the new tension of which they sing.

Living as it is okay or is going to be okay and denying the hurts and addictions of life. We who love this musical reject this notion and therefore resent this tension.

My last few entries of 2010 on this site hint at my emotional upheaval and confusion with everything I thought to be so certain. Taking too literally (and personally for that matter) foundations and ideas like Romans 8:28, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and who are called according to God's purpose." Not that it's complete bullshit, but more like, let's keep things like this in context, right? And this idea too--keeping scripture and other writings in their proper genre and contextual paradigms--is a simple approach for mainliners but a theological breech for evangelicals. (I'm getting lost on a tangent.)

Getting back to the point: I value naming the tension, especially when it's a really profound one like seeking life in a world where everything is alright. First of all, how boring. Second of all, how dysfunctional!

Instead, let us break through to a new tension, one that's more honest and life-giving. I want to live not in the aforementioned tension of naiveté and ignorance of pain. Nor do I claim a tension of healthy lifestyles and extreme greed (as promoted by the American media, and highlighted in the musical) while ignoring the needs of the world's poor. Instead I claim a tension that flows from concepts like loving in the midst of hate. Not an eye for an eye, but loving the enemy.

So as I reflect back on my posts of 2010, on articles that have infiltrated The New York Times in the last forty-eight months, along with the overarching condition of humanity (here's where I get all existential) I wonder what empowers us to embrace the tension of living fully and with hope, particularly in the reality that things are not okay, and maybe won't ever be in this lifetime.

Chatting with some friends during dinner last weekend, in regards to their ongoing work with the urban poor population and efforts to eradicate the situation entirely I asked what keeps hope in their future alive. I want to know where they go for restoration. Similarly, a dear friend who works at Bread for the World, an anti-hunger organization, expressed a relief from the rigors of fighting an uphill battle through religion. An elderly African American lady who worked as narcotics rehab officer during the 1970's in NYC spoke to me of her faith providing sustenance. Something to still believe in at the end of the day. I agree, and yet, I still wonder--

How do we hope (through the power of Jesus, or our higher power, or the prospect of Enlightenment, or whatever fills this blank in your sentence)...how do we hope for things to be made well while maintaining integrity and awareness to the realities of life?

Did Neitzche simply name what the rest of us fear, "Religion is an opiate for the masses"? Do we hope in the intervention of a Higher Power so we can get some rest at night, in tandem with the prescribed Ambien? Or does God really reach out in saving acts of grace? If God exists to love and be loved as love, a love so bold and refreshing that all fear is truly cast out, where do I find this? What does this mean? I want proof.

My previous answers to this are what crashed when I wasn't looking.

And full circle back to the music of Green Day, it's worth getting angry about the ways American youth are jolted around in a schizophrenic quest for peace. Our institutions of family and church (to keep the list short) fail us. Yet, I wonder if when redefined and re-imagined in our current cultural mix-up, might these be a few places to hope freely in and work for a radical world where things will be just that...okay. Talk about a new kind of tension.

I don't want to be an American idiot. But I wouldn't mind being an idiot for something that authentically lives the realities of hope and love amidst trauma and loss. Let's just be honest about it. It's unpredictable.

Will Someone Please Look?

I have no posts during 2011. Not only was blogging absent from daily ventures, so was staying in touch with friends (not that you friends need reminding of my negligence). I also took a sabbatical from several of my other nerdy hobbies, as well as remained obsessive about things like running and Diet Coke. People, I was a working girl. In addition to working, I was recovering from new wounds of disillusionment, depression, and disbelief. Life the past eighteen+ months has concentrated on (re)integrating lauren--a process also known as individuation. It's a trail that most embark upon in their late adolescence. So...I was about a decade behind. Despite my developmental delay, I return to this venue of self-expression having 1) grown-up a bit, 2) embraced many thrilling life experiences of transformation, and 3) discovered that much of what is already revealed here regarding things Church, divine, and my hopes therein still propel me into each new day.

As this is my first week not working (I did just resign from my job), I find my mind buzzing in excitement with the projects ahead of me. Currently, I have the opportunity to assist a dear friend and mentor in publishing a book of prayers she has written during last ten years in her work as a minister and pastoral therapist in NYC. (I don't get prayer, and I often wonder to whom we actually pray; so, this interaction is no coincidence.) Second, little mayfield no. 3 will be here the first week of July. I honestly do not understand how these pregnancies keep happening (well, I do, but you know what I mean). Third, we are moving to Louisville, KY the first week of August...really need for the baby to come on time.

Ordination and Call to Ministry
Institutional Church/Mega Church
Mainline Protestants
Racial, economic, and sexual diversity in the Church
Parenting two toddlers in NYC
Touring NYC
Churching in NYC
Working in NYC
literally living where we work
Therapy and Psychiatry
Old Friends who persist when I fail
New Friends who inspire when I deflate
Hymnody and Worship
Customs vs. Traditions
Cathedral or Local--are they mutually exclusive?
Sheepishly trying my pen at a bit of poetry
Mental Illness
Broken Relationships, Failed Marriages
Justification vs. Sanctification (oh, I'm so die-hard Anabaptist on this)
United Church of Christ: theology and polity
Office Decorating
An open door policy
and my favorite love...Pastoral Care.

Lots to talk about. I welcome you to the conversation, and I look forward to reconnecting with my other favorite cyber-writers and -readers; I hope to get a blog roll in the margin sooner than later. I've missed you.