Thursday, February 15, 2018

Did You See the Woman with Ashes Mourning the 17 Dead?

Did you see her? The woman in Parkland, FL, her forehead marked in ashes with the sign of the cross, in tears holding another woman in agony over the deathly shooting of 17? It was Ash Wednesday. We had wondered about Ash Wednesday falling on Valentines’ Day. Now hearts were broken. We questioned why a nation could endure 18 school shootings already in 2018 and not repent, turn from its gun violent ways.

The day after, one can discern clearly the congressional/presidential messages from people that call for prayers but omit any call for regulation on guns being the same people who have received millions from the NRA. “Now is not the time” will no longer suffice. We have entered Lent. For real.
Have you been watching the Olympics? I have. All those nations participating in the opening ceremonies. Together. The United States had the largest delegation, but even the smallest nation mattered. Their athletes were honored. Peaceful coexistence envisioned, as both Koreas carried their one banner and the torch together. Of course, the world questioned if this was for real. Could it become the norm?

In the United States we are now asking if all the school shootings since Columbine have become the norm. We know how to do the liturgies of lament: the flowers and teddy bears, the candlelight vigils. We cry together and support one another. We pledge we will turn from our violent ways. Good, determined people put forth legislation, organize, but progress is blocked, and we grow hopeless of winning against powerful forces.  People resign themselves to saying that “Some young people are just evil.” There will be more school shootings. Nothing can be done.

Have you been hearing? A phrase by U.S. Olympic news reporters this year? “Redemption.” Oh, not Lent to Easter Sunday Redemption of Jesus Christ, marked on the woman’s forehead with the ashen cross.  It has seemed to do with slipping away from viewing all athletes coming into the stadium to focusing only on U.S. athletes who win or should win gold. Yes, there are some heart-warming stories of those who lost or couldn’t compete four years ago who won this year. “Olympic Redemption!” It’s an old American story: those who, by their own boot straps, worked their way to the top of the podium.

And then there is the image of the woman with the ashen cross on her forehead in anguish over the 17 dead, 14 wounded in the 3000 student-body school in mourning. Why, literally on earth, are we the nation, who has thought of ourselves as the “Redeemer” to the world, the only country with so many guns and so many school shootings? Valentine’s Day is past. Lent has really begun. May we wear that cross of ashes in public all these forty days, while holding each other in anguish and while daring to summon Olympian courage together to change this nation for real.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Challenge of Living in an Adversarial Culture

People want to know how to live in this argumentative, adversarial time when the goal seems to be only to win rather than to jointly seek the truth. 

For the past two weeks I led Wednesday Night Alive sessions at Trinity Lutheran Church here in Mason City (IA) based on my book, Church Conflict:from Contention to Collaboration (Abingdon). The conversation among these adults was amazing! Engaging, deep, astute, attuned not only to conflict in the church, but in the culture. 

We dealt with (book chapters)
1. Images of Conflict

2. Types 
3. Patterns of conflict
4. Personal History of Conflict
5. Roles in Conflict
RESPONSES TO CONFLICT (There is a negative and positive side to each)
6. Avoidance
7. Confrontation
8. Competition
9. Control
10. Accommodation
11. Compromise
12. Collaboration

The challenges change over time, but call forth our most skilled leadership now more than ever.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Even the Smallest Children Lead the Liturgy

Silently the children entered the sanctuary. First came the pre-school children, then grade by grade through 8th, over 200, all sizes and tones of colors, came for Friday morning mass at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.  A sixth-grade boy announced the service was beginning. His class would lead today. The entire parish school takes turns leading week by week, including the kindergarten. This was the people’s mass and all were totally engaged. It was a full hour-long service with children leading every part, except for the presiding/preaching priest.

The reverent silence quickly turned to the beautiful sound of children’s voices filling the sanctuary: opening hymn, confession, Kyrie, Gloria, lessons, sung Psalm verses.  The music of the liturgy was central. There was singing and signing, all by heart, coming from the heart.

Numerous sixth grade children had carefully prepared their leadership roles of reading lessons, composing prayers, providing the choir for the day, (I understand when younger children lead, reading may be a bit slower, but lead they do!) In communal worship, all take their part. No one is mere audience.

The Liturgy is the work of the people. This reverence was not duty but the rhythm of joy. When it came time for the Eucharist, all knelt, the eyes of the youngest barely peering over the top of the pew in front of them. And then they came forward, many crossing their arms for a blessing, older children to receive the bread, and older still for bread and wine.  But all were part of this most holy communion.  And this most holy community.  

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Issue is More Than Obscenities

Today is the 8th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. Today the world is enraged that the president of the United States yesterday asked why we should accept more immigrants from s----hole countries of El Salvador, Haiti and Africa rather than from places like Norway. Monday is Martin Luther King Day. What will you be doing that day?

We have known of Trump’s racist outlook from his many previous words and actions. But it is not enough to say someone is racist. This lens of viewing some of God’s created, beloved people as inferior and of no worth has consequences. It creates policy in the United States and globally for years to come.

Words matter. Relationships matter. Consider how many Africans arrived in the U.S. during the Atlantic slave trade. (Does Trump not know Nigerians don’t live in huts?) Consider the hundreds of thousands who died in the Haiti earthquake, and the spirit of the people of Haiti, (See the book, A Witness: The Haiti Earthquake, a Song, Death, and Resurrection by Renee Splichal Larson, whose young husband, Ben, was killed in the earthquake) And did you know that Haiti helped us in the U.S. Revolutionary War?

The Jan 15th issue of “The New Yorker” magazine cover artwork features Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “taking a knee” in prayer, arms linked with NFL football players. What will you be doing and saying MLK day? Where will you be?

To be focused only on the obscenities of Donald Trump is not enough. We are called to be vigilant of the policies (those in the news and not) being put in place. We are called to deeply understand the issues and their intersection. We are called to be astute to global implications. We are called to care. Yes, about people’s fears, so they can be freed from their deep prejudices.  We are called to care for those who have suffered and suffer still. And we are called to have the courage to speak, lest disdain and dismissal of nations and peoples become the norm in speech and policy. Do we have the kindness and courage and wisdom for that? What will you say today?  What will you be doing on Martin Luther King Day?

Friday, January 5, 2018

Different Times for film "Unrest"

My previous blog told about the film "Unrest" to be broadcast" Monday January 8.  I just discovered that in some places it is being broadcast at a variety of times during the week of January 8-14, so please CHECK YOUR LOCAL PBS LISTING including the PBS WORLD channel. 

In Iowa it will be broadcast Wed, Jan 10 at 7:30 on World

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When is Resting Never Enough?


SoSome of you know that I live with a disability, the mysterious, debilitating chronic disease, ME/CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis.  I have lived with this disease for 35 years. I have a disease; I am not my disease.  Its cause is still unknown. No cure is available. And it is terribly misunderstood. 
I urge you to watch a film called "Unrest" which premieres on Independent Lens  on PBS Monday night, January 8, 10 p.m. EST, 9 p.m. CST (check your local listings.) Here is the description:
(San Francisco, CA) — Filmmaker Jennifer Brea was a Harvard PhD student soon to be engaged when she was struck down by a mysterious fever that left her bedridden. As her illness progressed she lost even the ability to sit in a wheelchair, yet her doctors insisted it was "all in her head." Unable to convey the seriousness and depth of her symptoms to her doctor, Jennifer began a video diary on her phone that eventually became the powerful and intimate documentary, Unrest. Written, directed, and produced by Brea, Unrest premieres on Independent Lens Monday, January 8, 2018, 9:00 to 10:30 CST on PBS.
Once Jennifer was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), she and her new husband, Omar, were left to grapple with how to shape a future together in the face of a lifelong illness. Refusing to accept the limitations of life in bed, Jennifer embarks on an online voyage around the world where she finds a hidden community of millions who have disappeared from their own lives, confined to their homes and bedrooms by ME. Using the internet, Skype, and Facebook, these disparate people connect with each other, finding a much-needed sanctuary of support and understanding.

At its core, Unrest is a love story. Though Jennifer and Omar may never live the life they originally dreamed about, together they find resilience, strength, and meaning in each other and their new-found community. Says Brea: “It’s my hope that in sharing this world and these people I have come to profoundly love, that we can build a movement to transform the lives of patients with ME, accelerate the search for a cure, and bring a greater level of compassion, awareness, and empathy to millions upon millions of patients and their loved ones wrestling with chronic illness or invisible disabilities.”

“As experts struggle to figure out what causes chronic fatigue syndrome, Jennifer’s film opens a window into what it’s like to live with this devastating illness,” said Lois Vossen, Executive Producer of Independent Lens. “This brave and fearless film introduces us to this community of millions of ‘missing’ people who have lost all normal functions to ME, and is a powerful demand that more be done to understand and cure a terrible disease.”

Unrest made its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and has been independently distributed with the support of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship. Visit the Unrest page on Independent Lens for more information about the film, which will be available for online viewing on the site beginning January 9.

About the Filmmaker
Jennifer Brea (Director/Writer/Producer) is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She has an AB from Princeton University and was a PhD student at Harvard until a sudden illness left her bedridden. In the aftermath, she rediscovered her first love, film. Her feature documentary, Unrest, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won a Special Jury Prize. She is also co-creator of Unrest VR, winner of the Sheffield Doc/Fest Alternate Realities Award. An activist for invisible disabilities and chronic illness, she co-founded a global advocacy network, #MEAction, and is a TED Talker.
About Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)

 A condition characterized by post-exertional malaise (a severe worsening of symptoms after even minimal exertion), ME causes dysregulation of both the immune system and the nervous system. The effects are devastating enough to leave 25% of patients homebound or bedbound. An estimated 15-30 million people around the world suffer from ME, approximately 75-85% of them women, and 80-90% of them undiagnosed.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are Gifts of Poor People and Congregations Important to the Church?

As a child, my mother moved my sister and me to Mason City from Des Moines after our father died suddenly of a heart attack. We were suddenly poor. A local Lutheran Church reached out to us, inviting us to worship services, Sunday School, and catechism classes. Members gave us rides to church and often invited us to Sunday dinner. At fall stewardship time, members were asked to bring food to share with the needy in the community. Mother gave my sister and me each a can of soup to take to the church’s offering. At Thanksgiving, I was surprised when our family also received a food basket from the church. I learned at that young age that in the Christian community it is not that some are the givers and others the receivers, but that all have something to offer, and, together, we all are receivers of God’s generosity. Together we are called to reach out to the community to those in need.
          In recent years, my husband and I helped support an inner-city congregation. Courageously and generously that small congregations for years had been serving its neighborhood.  Most of its members were young, in fact, youth!  (Many congregations would give anything to have that percentage of young people!) The youth had been taught to give and all gave almost ten percent of what they had. They were sharing God’s healing love. With the love and nurture of the congregation, many of the young people, were successful in school and beyond. But still, it was clear that this small, lower socio-economic mission congregation would never become totally self-sustaining.  It was closed last year.
          The story of the church is one of community. We are called to share God’s healing love in Christ’s reconciliation through personal and communal servanthood. We are called to mission through the generations. All are in need.  And the neediest have gifts. Not one of us as individuals or as congregations is totally self-sustaining. By the Spirit in the name of the Resurrected Christ we have been called to have all things in common and to use everyone’s gifts. How can we courageously and generously be the body of Christ as servants in the world?
          The essence of the early church, upon which all generations of the church since have been built by the Spirit, was hearing the Word taught and preached, baptism, the breaking of bread, prayers, and generous hearts for caring for each other. And the church grew. The history of the Church is not of individuals but of community. Together God gives us generous hearts to build up the body of Christ.

        “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Vocation: Why Deliver Mail When All the Homes Have Burned to Ashes?

        Images of tragedy quickly pass through the news cycle, but one image of houses totally incinerated in Santa Rosa, California, remains in my head. We viewed on television the city before and after: homes were totally burned to ashes. All was still. Nothing left. But in one screen image I saw something moving. A U.S. postal truck was driving alone slowly up the street. Why was it going up those streets? It seemed to be making its daily rounds. But there no homes to which to deliver mail. Incredible.  And then more incredible still, I saw the truck stop at a metal mailbox that remained. The carrier put some mail in that box. That was the driver’s job.  Or, in Martin Luther’s terms, that was the carrier’s station, role: to deliver mail.
        How ironic! How horribly ironic. What might that mail carrier have been feeling? How could one even tell which plot of ashes was which? What was the mail carrier’s vocation that day? What was the call to ministry?  Sometimes it is very difficult to discern, particularly in the midst of tragic circumstance.  Some people were incinerated in that ash. But others would be coming back and might need their mail: a pay check, a letter from an insurance company. The U.S. mail service would make other provisions, of course. Many addresses and mailboxes no longer existed. What about the mail carrier’s own house?
        After the tragedies of hurricanes, floods, and fires, Christ lives. As Luther wrote: God’s call lifts us out of our everyday duties but does not take us away from them. Rather, more deeply into them. Through the cross and resurrection, our work becomes calling. In the most tragic, even ironic situations, we need each other to discern our vocations. Christ lives in and through us together. Moving through the ashes, we are never alone. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

My Encounter with a Stranger From Somalia. U.S. Citizenship?

The man was sitting outside Barnes and Noble, having just removed from a paper sack his newly purchased guide to taking the U.S. Citizenship test book. I, sitting across from him, noticed his slender black face, and his fingers turning the many pages. The book was thick. He was quiet, but I sensed he was overwhelmed.
      It would be an intrusion to interrupt, but something in me compelled me to speak anyway. “I wish you well,” I said. He looked up, smiled, and said, “Thank you.” We were both quiet again. But then I asked, “Where are you from?” “Somalia,” he said, and then added, “There are so many questions in this book. How will I know which ones they will ask me?”
     “You won’t know which ones, but they won’t ask all of them. Don’t let the book overwhelm you.” Not knowing how much of what I was saying he understood, I continued anyway, because his eyes indicated he did. “I suggest you read one or two pages every day. Then you will gain understanding and confidence.” He smiled broadly and replied, “Confidence, yes, confidence.”
     Now we were engaged in conversation—at least as we were able, two strangers, sitting on benches outside of Barnes and Noble. He was waiting for his brother who was still in the store, already a U.S. citizen.  I was waiting for my husband, also still in the store.  The man had been in the U.S. four years. I said I had not been to Somalia, but had been to four countries in Africa, including Kenya. He smiled and said that was near Somalia.  Then he asked where I was from.  I said, “Iowa.”  He knew that was nearby, but asked further, “But where are you from?”  I then realized, that he assumed I, even though a white woman with a midwestern U.S. accent, must be originally an immigrant if I were so positively interested in his becoming a citizen, he being from one of the 6 countries with a Muslim majority population on Trump’s travel ban list.

     Just then his brother came out from the store and the man immediately told him about this woman sitting across telling how to study a little bit of the book every day so that he could become confident to take the citizenship test. He was excited now.  Then my husband came out and introductions were made all around. The conversation was short. We all had places to go, but before he left I asked about any family he might have still in Somalia. His face turned sad.  “My children. . . ”  He was determined to take the citizenship test now, even though it would be hard, but the chances of seeing his children again anytime soon would be harder, and all four of us knew it.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

All Those Boats

“Other boats were with him.” (Mk. 4:35) Day after day seeing all those boats of ordinary citizens in the Texas flood waters, this one sentence from Mark has kept ringing in my head. This is the biblical story of the great windstorm and the waves. We’ve seen the water rising all week. And I see the disciples: “they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” 
       Who could not be moved this week by all those boats taking people “just as they were,” into their boats to be rescued? They were taking Jesus. And all those other boats were with him. We usually focus on the rest of the story, of Jesus calming the sea and of Jesus identity.  But, for today, I simply see, all those other boats, and Jesus.

Friday, August 25, 2017

When to Not Take Responsibility Alone

In Hillary Clinton's new book, she reflects upon the things she could have done differently to have not lost the 2016 presidential election. She goes further to say the responsibility for that will weigh on her for the rest of her life. Knowing what we know now, all of that responsibility does not rest on her alone. Moreover, often women so quickly "take responsibility" for things.

I know I am socially conditioned to say, "I'm sorry," even when a situation had nothing to do with me. The point is, I see such a contrast between her feeling such a weight of personal responsibility and Trump's propensity to blame any and everyone else for every and anything else.

How quickly, one by one, his blaming and shaming take people down--and out. What Hillary took from him while still smiling and remaining calm, day after day and month after month, was utterly amazing.

What can each of us do now, to resist being either intimidated by or obsessed with his clever bullying and pay close attention to the damage being done every day at deeper levels lest the responsibility remain on all of us for years to come?

We live in the Forgiveness of Christ and therefore are called to be ministers of reconciliation. But that goes beyond just saying, "We want peace among divisions in this country." We must, as Hillary says in her book, dare to turn around and call out a bully to his face. We cannot do this alone. Together we need to pay attention to the issues. We cannot let one person take the fall and the rest of us become spectators. The damage being done to so many each day through policies and presidential executive orders and justice department decisions is huge. We are called to act responsibly together so that we as a whole people do not lose our collective democracy.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

What Can One Person Do?

In the face of overwhelming national and global issues of racism, economic inequality, nuclear war, immigration, individuals are left wondering what their personal vocation can be. A lifelong friend of mine, Phyllis Kester, living in Denver, wrote me recently asking this very question. Here is our exchange of letters:

Dear Norma,

Our household subscribes to the Sunday edition of The New York Times.  So this morning I sat down to immerse myself in my favorite section:  "The Sunday Review" (the editorial section.)  I'm speaking of the Sunday, Aug. 6 edition.

Two of the in-depth articles resonated powerfully.

The Policies of White Resentment, by Carol Anderson

The Walls We Won't Tear Down,  by Richard  Kahlenberg

For years - I've been drawn to the challenges of institutionalized discrimination.  And for years,  I've been overwhelmed about what one person can do constructively to work for change.  

So I decided to share my questioning mind-heart with you.  What DOES one person do in constructive response?   No doubt you could write a book on the question.

Your loving & head-scratching friend,  Phyllis

Those questions are so important, even more important after Trump’s provocative remarks and Korea’s response, all leading us closer to nuclear war.  Burton and I also saw the movie, “Detroit” this week.  The issues are huge, complex and not getting any easier.  I share your anguish over what to do as one person about institutionalized discrimination and systemic racism and all the isms. 

So I could ask you the same question. "What can one person do?"

I do know that we still have a voice.  We have more power than so many millions.  And, at least for the moment we still have time.  What are your possibilities, Phyllis?  The press is under attack but we still can write letters to the editor that can be printed. There is social media.  I have Twitter and Facebook and blog avenues.

There is the power of one. But I think the power of groups, even small groups is more effective. Tell me what are the possibilities in Denver for you and others, Phyllis?  I think about this here in Iowa.  I/we have only so much energy, so how do we choose where and when to use it?

Personally I have been thinking about pastors and often the gulf between them and their congregations.  A pastor often serves a congregation where people have very different views from one another  How to you preach/minister there effectively?  I may want to spend time and energy listening to such pastors and helping them in their roles. 

I don’t know, Phyllis, but I do know that your questions and mine are the same. I pray God will help us discern our vocations at such a time as this

Dear Norma,

You are kind to respond to my musings-questions.  I appreciate your categories of voice - small groups - place.

For years, I've contributed financially (as a member) to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  I was initially introduced to this essential "small group" by one of my heroines, Barbara Jordan (Texas Rep. to U.S. Congress.)

For years, I've participated as a "citizen lobbyist"-- in person or usually by email or phone.  In the 1980's, I was advocating for Salvadorans & Guatamalans through the U.S. Sanctuary Movement.  In Denver now I'm part of the Colorado Faith Communities for Gun Safety.  

For years, I've written PBS and NPR about specific issues.  In the 1990's, Jim Lehrer actually wrote back.  To my amazement,  he implemented my suggestion for an educational reporter.

Currently, I'm overjoyed at the new dean of St. John's Cathedral.  However, I'm patiently moving at his pace - - - to explore where to "come down together" in unison.

Off the wall - - I have the most amazing, direct, impromptu conversations on the Colfax bus in Denver (the most diverse bus in the city) and with my LYFT drivers.  One of my LYFT drivers was/is a pastor of an African-American church in the Denver area.  We talked intensely for 10 minutes-driving-together about the challenges of church integration in the face of neighborhood segregation. These conversations have the feel (to me) of mountain streams with kayakers in unpredictable interaction.

The power of the arts is not to be underestimated.  We have a poet laureate in Denver who intentionally rides the Colfax bus from beginning-to-end - - as his muse for writing relevant poetry.   My brother-in-law Terry Kester (now in Wilsonville, Oregon) is a life-long theater director/producer.  He has long influenced me about the power of drama to speak to the heart concerning the most knotty (and evil)  of our communal problems.   I recently spent a week in Wilsonville & was awed by a one-man dramatization of Clarence Darrow.  The entire performance focused on Darrow's representation of legal clients who were powerless (financially & culturally.)  Darrow was a one-man Southern Poverty Law Center.

Volunteering at the St. Francis Center for the homeless seems like both a service and critical education in my limited life.  It is also the most remarkable witness of blessings - given & received - among the guests & hosts. 

I stand in profound appreciation of your engagement with clergy who are with congregations with divergent views.  Such a juxtaposition seems like a fulcrum of "our knottiest problems."

May God guide us indeed on our uncharted journey.

Your loving friend,  Phyllis