Passing Peace

It’s happened hundreds of times. When the presider said the words, “The peace of Christ be with you,” we all responded, “And also with you,” and then we stood up to pass the peace to one another. “Peace be with you.” “And with you.” Over and over, grasping each other’s hands, giving one another a hug, gently smiling, reaching out. It happens this way every week on Wednesday evenings in my seminary chapel.

But this week, just an hour earlier, our buildings and the entire campus surrounding us had been on lock-down. Our doors had been shut and secured. Office lights had been turned off. Some were crammed together in a basement study room; others were crouched behind metal file cabinets. Those of us in the chapel closed our doors and continued to prepare for worship, unsure if anyone but ourselves would be able to come. I removed myself from the musicians practicing so that I could listen for the sound of approaching gunshots.

I’d received the email as the worship group rehearsed – there were reports of a shooter; everyone on campus should shelter in place. It was an hour before we were given the all clear, though we were told that one building remained under lock-down. At the time we began our worship service, we didn’t yet know that the whole situation had been prompted by a hoax report. So when helicopters continued to circle as we sang our opening song, and when sirens blared by as we said the Prayers of the People, I felt a prolonged sense of anxiety.

Then, near the beginning of the Communion liturgy, after the confession and pardon, we engaged in that ancient ritual of passing the peace. In that moment, it felt like a subversive act, a site of resistance to the atmosphere of violence we all breath. “Peace be with you,” said with both concern and sincerity. “And also with you,” spoken as we met each other eyes and touched each other’s hands.

Earlier, in her sermon on John 12:20-26, Dr. Nancy Bedford had exhorted us to look for Jesus in resistance to the “worldly” ways of empire and to follow in Jesus’ paradoxical and life-giving way. And even earlier in the day, thousands of teenagers had peacefully left their classrooms and demanded gun law reform, even in the midst of adults’ reprimands. Peace is not easy.

The Christian call to practice peace in the midst of what Jesus calls “the world” – the network of power centers that rule through military and economic might – is not new. The American worship of war and weapons is not the first imperial force Christians have had to contend with. When Jesus said the words “Peace be with you” in his resurrection appearances, he was offering a peace that flew in the face of Rome’s militarized “Pax Romana,” which ruled through subjugation and false security. Christ invites us into his radical peace, and it is not peace of passivity or of resignation. It is an active peace that reaches out in the midst of fear and violence and says, “I see Christ’s presence in you. I extend Jesus to you. I have chosen to give my life for your well-being.”

The later news that the report of an active shooter had been hoax does not change the poignancy of our passing the peace nor the world’s need for our witness. We still live in a profoundly broken world. We live in a world where, as my colleague Alexa points out, it was reasonable and likely for us to believe that someone had obtained a gun, shot their girlfriend, and intended to do further harm with it.  We live in a world where others have had to go through a similar experience, whether hiding in their schools from a gun or in their neighborhoods from a bomb.  We live in a world where violence is a punchline.

For all these reasons and more, Christ continues to call us to give our lives for the cause of peace that passes all understanding. Perhaps that is why we pass the peace every Sunday – to turn this ancient liturgy into muscle memory, so that our practice of peace will always be stronger than the world’s way of violence.

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“No, you may not hold my hand, Philip!” And Other Things I Was Too Afraid to Say (Or #YesAllWomen, #NotOkay, and #MeToo)

Phrase #1 “Those boys are bothering me.”

When I was in 1st grade, I rode a county bus that picked up students from kindergarten to 12th grade. My seat was the third on the left, and I shared it with my friend Staci. At some point during the year, some troublemaker middle-schoolers were moved to the very front seat where our bus driver could keep an eye on them. Because of the mirror directly above the driver’s seat, these boys could also keep an eye on me, and, though I’m not entirely sure why, they decided that their newest diversion would be tormenting me from several seats ahead. “Little girl, little girl …” they would begin in mock-high voices as soon as I had claimed my seat on the bus, ogling at me through the mirror. “Look in the mirror, little girl.” I suppose they wanted me to look in the mirror because it was, under the observation of the bus driver, the only way they could exert their control and superiority over me. To this day, I wish I had cheesily smiled up at them through the mirror and then shrugged—that I had somehow shown that they didn’t have the power to make me feel small. But they did have that power. Instead, I hung my head and stared at my feet, refusing to look even remotely in the mirror’s direction. The bus driver asked me once if they were bothering me, but I didn’t want to be a problem. And if she had to ask, I wasn’t sure she could understand just how much they were bothering me.

Each day, Staci would join me in my seat, I’d mumble to her, “They’re doing it again,” and be grateful for her company. I never told anyone but Staci about it. For some reason I felt embarrassed and guilty about their behavior, as if I was the cause, not the victim.   Until the bus driver finally moved them again, I truly felt like a very small, very powerless “little girl.”

Phrase #2 “You are very kind, but I’ve really spent about as much time with you as I can manage.”

It was my freshman year of college, my first year of adulthood, and my first real foray into the world of dates and rejecting them properly. I can’t be sure Jeremiah was asking me out, but I do believe he was trying. I don’t remember if this was before or after the time he awkwardly stood in my room engaging me in conversation while I waited for him to leave, or before or after the time I literally had to kick him out of my room because it was past dorm visiting hours. But he asked to eat dinner with me, and I told him that I was busy that night—instead of, as was called for in each situation, saying, “You really are very kind, but you can’t take a hint. I’m done now. I’ve really spent about as much time with you as I can manage. Please leave me alone.” He meant no harm, but his obliviousness to my body language and even my verbal language erased my own desires, and if he didn’t understand these boundaries, what other boundaries could he cross? I was afraid that outright rejection would leave me exposed. So I gave an excuse and hoped he wouldn’t feel cheated out of something I owed him.

Phrase #3 “You think you’re being clever, but actually you are living into a misogynist narrative that does not become you.”

I was writing a paper—probably for my Philosophy of Gender class—about the stereotype of the over-emotional woman or some similar thing. I first decided to write the paper because of an exchange with a male friend in which, after expressing incredulity that I get in bad moods, he said finally, “Oh, well, of course you have bad moods; you’re a woman.” That, it seemed, explained everything.

Whenever I brought up the paper topic with my male friends, they would typically respond with a quip like, “the stereotype?!?” Of course implying that the over-emotional woman was no stereotype at all but verifiable fact. I would simply grimace and move on, but I used their responses as fodder for my paper. It was always disconcerting, though; my otherwise kind, enlightened, respectful male friends had no difficulty perpetuating the idea that women are more emotional than men and that this emotion is something problematic. I felt angry and dismissed, but also sad. They were stunting me, yes, but also themselves.

Phrase #4 “Our mutual existence in physical space does not give you ownership over my body!!!!”

So I probably wouldn’t have shouted that exact phrase. And perhaps it should have been expletive-laden for extra effect.

I was in Berlin, slightly jet-lagged and mildly culture-shocked, walking down a sidewalk at dusk. My two female companions and I were attempting to take up only the polite amount of sidewalk, but it was difficult with the myriad outdoor seating, recycling bins, and ornamental trees that shared the walkways. Some young men came whizzing from behind on their bikes, passing us on the left. One of them reached out and slapped my rear as he sped by. I didn’t say anything—not to the swiftly speeding boys, not to my companions, not to anyone, ever. I immediately assumed that I had been in the wrong in some way—that I’d been taking up too much of the sidewalk or walking on the wrong side. Somehow I convinced myself that my actions gave a random stranger the right to touch me. Even if I had been doing something problematic, which I wasn’t (sidewalks are for walking and roads are for biking, friends), my body and the space it inhabits is still my own. I wasn’t the one transgressing boundaries—the young man was. But it’s taken me a decade to come to that conclusion; so many other voices suggested otherwise.

Phrase #5 “No, you may not hold my hand, Philip!”

I was once again in Europe, this time in Paris, taking in the sights on a solo journey. One sunny afternoon, I walked down the Champs Elysee toward the Louvre, intent on getting in line for the museum’s weekly free evening. As I shuffled up a pair of steps, someone spoke to me, in French, and I responded, in my best but broken French, that I did not, in fact, speak French. The gentleman then switched to English, asking an innocuous question about where I had gotten my shoes. It seemed like such an innocent and normal question, and the conversation that followed was in the same normal-sounding vein.

It wasn’t until we got closer to the Louvre that things began to feel “off” with my new acquaintance Philip. His questions were more prying, his tone was more insistent. He invited me to come with him on a tour of the city. Internally I said, “Hell, no,” and externally I politely declined. He was persistent, saying I could go the Louvre any old time. I told him I really needed to get in line. He said it was much too early—the museum didn’t open for an hour. I didn’t know how to argue with him; I hadn’t learned how to say phrase #2 yet. For some reason, not offending him was more important than my wellbeing—or, perhaps, not offending him seemed paramount to my wellbeing. I finally agreed to sit with him on a bench in a nearby public courtyard until it was closer to opening time.

As we walked past the growing, snaking line, he grabbed my hand. Everything in me froze; I didn’t want to hold his hand. I didn’t even want to be talking with him. I didn’t want him anywhere near me. But something inside me was paralyzed. Instead of saying “no,” or forcefully—or even gently—extracting my hand, I felt I needed to justify my movement somehow. So I pulled my hand away to open my water bottle. I then kept my hands on my purse.

After we sat on the bench, his sentences and body language became halting, unsure, agitated. He talked for 20 minutes straight about everything and the kitchen sink. I nodded along and tried to summon up the courage to interrupt him. Finally, I told him that it had been lovely talking with him, but I really had to get in that line. He hung his head and said I must not have enjoyed myself if I wanted to leave. I don’t know if he bought my lies, but I had finally had enough. The frustration that might have propelled me to yell out, “You may not hold my hand, Philip!” won out over the politeness that had silently withdrawn my hand, and I said and abrupt goodbye and walked swiftly back the Louvre. My common sense had kept me from doing anything dangerous, but my fear of upsetting Philip kept me from living into my own agency. It felt like a living example of the phrase, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Phrase #6 “Why don’t you respect my own authority?”

I got on a Chicago city bus with two other young women connected to the campus ministry I was working for. We sat near the back where there were more seats since we were waiting for two young men to join us. A man we did not know came to the back of the bus and sat among us. He asked us if we had anything to eat and then laughed. He tried to engage us all in rather condescending conversation—we all felt uncomfortable. I rolled my eyes at one of my companions, but I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t know what he would do if we asked him to leave.

Finally, our male friends joined us, coming to the back section of seats. The creepy man immediately jumped up and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were with them.” In his mind, he now saw that we were already claimed by a man, and, because of that other man’s presence, creepy man now had no right to be there. I felt both demeaned and livid. And though I was glad the creepy man left us alone, I wanted him to respect us for ourselves, not for any supposed male authority over us.

Phrase #7 “Stop!”

I actually did say this one.

I was in the Grand Bazaar in Turkey, and we had to enter a tremendous press of people to get through to the other side of the street. It was a pedestrian traffic jam such as I have never seen. Bodies pressed against bodies, everyone trying to push their way through, a whole seething mess of humanity. Suddenly, one of my female travel companions came up to me and said, “Someone just groped my breast.” Her eyes were wide and terrified. I pulled her under my arm and tried to push through faster. Then I felt someone grab and squeeze my own rear end. I whirled around and pushed the person directly behind me. “Stop!” I yelled, not caring if this person spoke English. My tone would speak for me. He didn’t respond in any way, didn’t look at me, just stared at the ground. I was shaking. And I didn’t stop shaking all day.

As a group that night, we all sat together in one of our rooms and talked about what had happened. We talked about sexual assault and sexism, and I felt better for the conversation and discussion. Holding things in had made me feel less vulnerable initially, but sharing the experience eventually made me feel held in my pain and righteous in my anger.

~~~

I am not a timid person. I’ve been told more times than I can count that I am confident, even sometimes intimidating. My parents taught me that being female did not change what I could and could not do. I have surrounded myself with strong, loving, and encouraging people. I generally feel powerful enough to make choices that ensure my own safety. But somehow, in the midst of all this, I absorbed the cultural messages which said that any discomfort, pain, or embarrassment I experience at the hands of a man is my own fault, that to speak up for my own desires is to be too abrasive, and that a man’s agency is more important than my own. I have learned to keep silent, to keep the peace, to keep a man’s pride intact. I have learned to be afraid of using my voice.

I refuse to be afraid any longer. Some of these instances were minor. Some feel more pressing. None were life threatening, at least not in the traditional sense. But all of them threaten my life in that they each contain a moment when my existence was deemed less valuable because it was a female existence. Each experience on its own might not add up to much. But put together, along with countless other micro- and macro-aggressions against women, these moments threaten to silence and dehumanize me. I wish that I had been empowered to speak each of these phrases when the occasion called, but it is my choice now to speak up and speak loudly, until every woman’s voice is freed and heard.

Mary’s Yes

I preached this sermon at a chapel service at my seminary two weeks ago on a day we celebrated Women’s History Month.  It also seems appropriate for our current celebration of Holy Week. 

Today we are celebrating women. Responding to the call to tell women’s stories during Women’s History Month, we are singing songs written by women, enacting rituals that remembering women, bringing attention to injustice against women, and, just now, we read a story that features a woman.

So let me set the scene the story. In the chapter before today’s passage, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were witnesses to that miracle and sign of Jesus’ identity. At the end of that chapter, we read that those in power are shaken by this event and are determined to put Jesus to death. The miracle of life is a scary thing sometimes. We don’t know how to respond.

But Mary and Martha and Lazarus did. They welcomed Jesus back to their town of Bethany with a banquet. I imagine a table piled high with olives and lamb and fresh bread. Did they know Jesus’ favorite food? It’s probably there, carried in on a steaming platter. A breeze blows from the street through the open wall, where curious passers-by peer in with excitement to catch a glimpse of both the man raised from the dead and the one who did the raising. Musicians play in the corner. Everyone laughs a joke. Lazarus reclines next to Jesus, and Martha can’t stop smiling as she pours the wine.

The passage tells us that it’s six days before Passover; there’s a sense of counting down to something. We know that there is a death threat hanging over Jesus’ head and that Jesus has foretold his own death. We seem to be close to the fullness of time. The gospel writer wants his audience to know that something important is about to happen.

Enter Mary. We know so little about her. She is one of at least three siblings. She wept bitterly over her brother’s death. She knows and loves Jesus. Imagine her holding a jar, coming from the doorway to the outward end of the couches, past her brother, the sight of whom always gives her heart a start of joy. She takes the jar she’s holding and breaks it open. The thick, amber oil pours slowly onto Jesus’ feet, the scent of so much perfume starts filling up the room. Do people fall silent as they catch the scent and realize what is happening? Do the out-door watchers point and whisper? What does Jesus do?

Mary pours out the whole jar. The whispers grow louder. “She probably paid 300 dinarii for that!” “I’d have to work a whole year to pay for a jar of pure nard!” Mary’s action comes at great personal cost.

When the jar is empty, Mary removes her head covering and carefully unpins her long hair. Those who see shake their heads and purse their lips. A woman with her hair down is a woman without honor, a woman of loose morals. Mary’s action is unashamed, even reckless.

She takes her long hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet, spreading the perfume, sending its aroma out to fill not just the room but the entire house. The gospel writer wants us to hear a connection between the way Mary wipes Jesus’ feet and the way, five days later, Jesus will wipe his disciples’ feet as he washes them. After completing the washing, Jesus will call his disciples to serve others in this way as he has served them. His act of service will be a model for what it means to truly follow Jesus.

And here is Mary, five days before Jesus gives this command to his disciples, embodying true discipleship, following the call the participate in the self-giving actions of Jesus. As a woman, she is on the margins of society with barely any power available to her. But as a disciple, she has entered into the heart of Jesus’ call.

Mary’s womanhood in this story is both a blessing and a danger for us as post-modern readers. It is a blessing because we see the typical strictures around women torn down and the fullness of God’s invitation extended. It is a woman who models real discipleship. But we are also walking on dangerous ground. Mary is a woman performing an act of service. We might be inclined to valorize her servant-hood to the point of telling women, who are so often called by our culture into self-effacing sacrifice, that they can never give enough of themselves. Women, don’t complain. Don’t speak up. Don’t resist. Don’t demand respect. Humiliation and even shame are part of the Christian servant-hood bargain. It’s one thing to talk about self-sacrifice in situations of privilege. It’s another thing to talk about self-sacrifice when the worth of selves, in this case of women, has been consistently denied.  

But to view Mary’s action this way would be to miss the point. When Judas calls her act into question, Jesus doesn’t respond by saying that Mary is right because she is acting like a servant. He tells Judas that Mary has kept this for the day of Jesus’ own burial; Jesus connects Mary’s anointing, and thus her discipleship, to the recognition of Jesus’ impending death. What does this connection say about the meaning of Mary’s anointing?

When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, she brings her whole self to Jesus’ movement of radical love. The other disciples don’t get it. Like Judas, their hearts might be elsewhere. Like Peter, they might be afraid. Like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, they might come timidly to anoint Jesus’ body. Mary anoints boldly. Mary brings her whole heart, her whole self, to the task of loving Jesus well, knowing that it could cost her everything.

When we follow Jesus, do we put our whole selves in? Do we de-compartmentalize our lives and let go of the ways of being that distract us from God’s call? Are we willing to recognize the profound faith of the unexpected and marginalized other, are we willing pay the price of our sense of superiority and attend to the ways God shows up where we have given up?

When Mary anoints Jesus, she refuses to play by society’s rules for norms and roles. She uncovers her head and deals extravagantly. She acts like a disciple even though she is a woman. She doesn’t let the smallness of the world’s imagination restrict the largeness of her love. She looks foolish for the sake of Jesus.

When we follow Jesus, are we willing break the status quo? Do we uncover the insidious habits of thinking that objectify women and hide abuse? Do we stand up for the right of all people to love and commit their lives freely to another person, regardless of sex or gender? Do we rebel against standards of busyness and name ourselves as worthy of rest? Are we willing to look foolish for Jesus? And do we do these things not just as persons but as pastors, as future leaders of the church, as prophets within our own institutions?

When Mary anoints Jesus, she chooses to identify herself with creative resistance. Jesus’ ministry was marked by attention to the powerless and by a boundary-breaking love that calls all people together. This kind of boundary-breaking is always terrifying to those who have hedged themselves with power. This kind of boundary-breaking gets you killed. Mary casts her lot with Jesus, knowing his way of fighting oppression, believing that his love could resist the power of death and create new life out of hopelessness.

When we follow Jesus, do we commit ourselves to the love that resists the power of death? Do we stand with oppressed female factory workers not just with our voices but with our dollars? Do we create spaces of healing and acceptance for teenage girls drowning in messages of self-hate? Do we break the boundaries that keep so many women struggling to care for themselves and their children? Do we join our fate to theirs?

When Mary anoints Jesus, she models a discipleship that gives everything, that rejects the status quo, that joins in with a subversive, boundary-breaking love.

But most of all, when Mary anoints Jesus, her action is born out of gratitude for the triumph of life over death. Jesus has raised her brother from death into life. Jesus has given her and her family new life and strength. Mary is not a model disciple because she worked harder at it. Jesus spoke life into Mary’s existence, and she responded with everything she had. Jesus doesn’t leave us alone in the hard call to follow him. Jesus equips us for unexpected and courageous discipleship. We respond with everything we have because Jesus speaks life into our existence.

I have this image of me, standing at the edge of the banquet room, unwilling to break open my jar and engage the risky work of loving a God condemned to die. I imagine I am not the only one standing there. We ring the room, unsure, not wanting to cause a scene, not certain we have the courage to begin the messy work of justice and mercy. Afraid to say “no” to death because saying “yes” to the life of Christ is sometimes just so terrifying.

Thank God for the courageous and unexpected role models we have in women who embraced the costly, counter-cultural, and transformative nature of discipleship. We have Mary of Bethany, who boldly anointed Jesus. We can learn from Catherine of Siena, who defied the gender roles of the 14th century and worked to bring peace to Italy. We remember Sojourner Truth, who took to task those who tried to deny her humanness and womanhood. We look to Sister Helen Prejean, who dares to build friendships with those society has discarded on death row and fights against the injustice of the death penalty. These women are disciples of an untamable God. They have responded to Jesus’ gift of life with a whole-hearted “yes.”

So, my friends. Serve Jesus with bold acts of love. God has breathed life into our bones and will give us the strength to answer the call of discipleship. Like Mary, may we give our whole selves to the subversive and transformative love of Jesus.

Let my people go

(In honor of Holy Week’s Table Turning MondayI offer this liturgy of (in)justice.  This was originally a sung and spoken-word piece I did for a class presentation on the theology of anthropology.)  

 

When Israel was in Egypt’s land

Let my people go

Oppressed so hard they could not stand

Let my people go

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the riverside

that runs with the blood of the mined-up earth

shining oil and topsoil run-off

dry-throated children crouch on the shores

with plastic pails they gather in life and death

and we, the blood-letters

don’t have to watch

their illness fester on the banks of the river of life

they ask for no parting of the water—

only a clear cup to drink

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the city of tents

where a young girl kicks at a ball of rags

and tries to bury the sound of gunshots

in the swift, strong movement of muscle

sit with her there

and do not try to explain away

the horror she hides in the catch in her smile

give her that cup of cold, clear water

but don’t expect to be rewarded with the return of innocence

stolen by the greed built into our daily commute

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the prison cell

where a tattooed man holds his head in his hands

and weeps

because he was a prisoner long before he got here

and yesterday during visiting hours

he saw his daughter’s face for the very first time

and he was afraid

afraid of the chains he saw growing around her tiny ankles

chains that snake through the houses of my neighborhood

and end at my doorstep

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Go down, Moses,

way down to the path that leads to the tree of life

fall down on your knees in the dust of the earth

where I buried my hands and wondered

how can such fertile ground

shape such barren people?

Tell me, Moses, how I got here

And tell me, please, where all this is going

Tell me plagues have to do with freedom

Tell me the price of the firstborn was worth it

But most of all, Moses, tell me I am going with you

 

Show me a God who stretches out her mighty arm

and scatters our expectations

a God who holds our hearts and softens them

to each other

to Herself

 

Go down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land.

Tell old Pharaoh

to let my people go.

 

Tell me, Moses

what do I do

when I discover that I am not in Egypt

I AM Egypt

 

Let my people go.