upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Want Gifts for Christmas (by Katie M Ladd)

This essay is entitled "Why I Want Gifts for Christmas (by Katie M Ladd)" because I want gifts. For Christmas. This year. As I scroll through Facebook and read editorials, I see many people writing about their desire to forego gifts. "All I want is time spent with family." Really? That's all they want? I am clearly a bad person. I don't just want that. I want a new Blu-Ray player, Harry Potter movies to play on that Blu-Ray, the dent in my car fixed, my car detailed, maybe a new blender, a coat (my one coat is several years old), some pants that fit, underwear, gift certificates to go to the movies, hiking shoes, fig preserves (the best food on earth), an itunes gift certificate, good smelling candles, and a new pair of gloves. Okay, I won't be shy. I also want a scooter to drive to work, a signed piece of art by Charles Schulz* (my favorite art of all time! Go, Charlie Brown!), renovations done to my house (heck, a new house), an electric car, a new electricity panel at my house that could handle an electric car, solar panels on my house, a wi-fi fob on my tv so I can stream television shows, a fenced in yard, a puppy in my fenced in yard, a trip to Turkey and Greece, and a lot of money. I want all of these things. I am not exaggerating. I want every single one of these things.

I like things. I don't like shopping. But, I like things. I want things. I do.

And, yet...

I am not asking for these things (well, most of them) because even though I want them, I know that there is a better way to mark this holy season - there is a better way to live my life. One problem we seem to have in this country is that we have acquiesced to the premise that if we want it, we should have it. That is not an ecological ideal. It is not a communal idea. It is not an ethical virtue. It is not a Christian value. We can rise above our wants. We are, after all, sentient beings capable of reflection, thought, planning, and empathy. Despite the misguided resurgent devotion to Ayn Rand, the proper moral pursuit for a human being isn't necessarily that person's personal happiness or self-interest. We belong to groups - families, communities, churches, synagogues, mosques, prayer circles, hiking clubs, book clubs, alumna associations, alumnae associations, parenting groups, 12 step groups, circles of friends, and so forth. We do not belong only to ourselves. Pursuing aims, including "things," for our own self-interest without regard to how this pursuit affects others should not be lauded. Sorry, Ayn. You were wrong. Those who follow you today are wrong. I am more than a collection on wants or even needs. I am more. We are more.

For those who feel the need to pepper spray fellow shoppers, camp in tents in order to buy a new PlayStation, stand in long lines to get a deal on a pair of jeans, I wonder, "How much did this enrich your life and the life of your community?" Aren't you more than this?

The ethics of my faith and the mystery of the Christmas story remind us all that we are more than our basest selves. Human beings are capable of immeasurable kindness and compassion. Human beings are able to step away from self-interest for the sake of another. We are. You are. I am. We are able to ask this Christmas for a different kind of gift, not because we don't want other things, but because we are committed to something more.

The Christmas story is fundamentally a story about God bringing life from a place where no life should be. It is a story that parodies the birth stories of the great. It makes a farce of the powerful and the rich. The great song of Christmas is Mary's Song, the Magnificat. How ironic that the song of the soul of Christmas includes, "[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:51-53) when we grapple and fight, scratch and claw our way toward a new toaster. Let's not allow Christmas to be ironic this year. Let's look with hopeful hearts for Christ's light to shine in our darkness, for God's Son to be born. Let's do Christmas differently this year. With joy. And simplicity. And love for neighbor. Let's approach Christmas with a hope for life in our lifeless communities.

I want things. I bet you do, too. Here's my actual Christmas list. Notice, it still includes a few things.
*Blu-Ray Player
*Harry Potter on Blu-Ray
*Donations to UMCOR
*Donations to the Woodland Park Zoo - specifically for the Western Pond Turtle
*Donations to Heifer International
*Donations to the Church of Mary Magdalene/Mary's Place
*Donations to the Trevor Project
*Donations to Jamaa Letu
*Donations to Nothing But Nets
*Donations to Wildlife Direct - Mountain Gorillas
*Donations to Operation Nightwatch
*Fig Preserves

Feel free to buy me gifts. All of you. I welcome the stranger reading this post to give me a gift, but don't get the Blu-Ray or the Harry Potter (I'm very particular, you see). Get the rest. Fig preserves are welcome.

*It was brought to my attention that I originally posted that I wanted art from Howard Schultz. Um, in my defense, I was drinking a Starbucks coffee at the time. Cross-contamination. I don't particularly care for art from him, unless coffee counts. I want art by Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and his crazy gang of friends.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hobbling the Occupy Movement

Forty days ago I was struck by a car while I was walking. Thank goodness my injuries were not life threatening. For this I am very grateful. However, I have been left wounded; I am still hobbling on crutches, limping without crutches, and going through the too long and arduous process of healing. All of this has taken place as the Occupy movement has come to Seattle and set up its tent. I have been forced to watch from the sidelines shaking my crutches in frustration that I am unable to offer my time and presence. It has been my sense that I would not be a pastoral presence to the occupiers, a mediating influence between them and the police, or an effective witness in the street. All I have been able to do is pray...from a distance. And pray, I have done.

Seattle, by its nature, is a liberal city. For assistance during the most recent election, I turned to a progressive voting guide. Where else would one do this and find candidate after candidate equally acceptable to the progressive voter? Mostly, a person had to choose the issues that were of most importance and vote for the candidate that shared a passion for it. It was a liberal v liberal election, a progressive v progressive election. Given the overall liberality of the city, it didn't take long for the city council to consider divesting money from big banks and explore more ethical means of banking. The mayor praised the movement and committed to ensuring its ability to maintain its presence. A town hall was held to discuss the city council's decision to affirm and support the general principles of the movement. But, like so many things, the Seattle-Occupy relationship fast became complicated.

Skirmishes with police dotted daily proceedings. The town hall was interrupted by occupiers who decried the process. The daily worker grew frustrated that protests ostensibly geared for their benefit were disrupting their sleep and obstructing their streets. I have followed the conversation and watched it unfold, but I have not been able to be part of it.

Then, yesterday afternoon, the Occupy Seattle Facebook page indicated that the afternoon's protest was being met with an even larger police presence. This lit up the Livestream conversation as people wondered if Occupy Seattle would be going the way of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Portland. Was the tension about to reach an untenable level? Would the police, militarized and frustrated, about to ratchet up the confrontation? "Come down," the cry went out. I looked at my crutches, felt my swollen knee, and knew that I could not come down. I could neither parade nor process, much less carry a sign or wear a robe. I read the feed.

As most in the nation know, tensions did finally mount to a breaking point. The police, claiming to do nothing more than keep the streets clear, pepper sprayed the group and arrested several people. Among those in the melee were a pregnant woman, a United Methodist colleague, and a wonderfully prophetic 84 year old Seattle woman. Dorli Rainey is a character who cannot be summed up in a sentence or two. If you want to know her, visit her website. Yes, she has a website.

Agitating for change is a dicey process. On the one hand, change won't occur without agitation. On the other, the desired change will be elusive if the agitation shakes off needed support. The Occupy movement has struggled to find the balance between too little and too much agitation. Those who maintain that protestors "should" do it legally without upsetting anyone don't understand that the goal of the movement is not simply to vent frustration "at the man." Rather, the goal is to question and demand change in political and economic decision making processes and the policies which they create. Any system that consistently and relentlessly values the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is a corrupt system. To those in the Abrahamic traditions, it is an evil system. Moreover, it is such an ensconced system that a lot of agitation is needed to force it to change. That is why agitation and even confrontation are needed. That is why lawful protest won't work. It won't agitate enough to upset large and deeply rooted institutions, processes, or policies. Heck, lawful protest wouldn't even garner attention of the press, which is vital in creating change. On the other hand, those who yearn for confrontation for the sake of confrontation do so at the peril of the overall goal. Commuters are part of the 99% as are police, fire fighters, and neighbors trying to sleep. Neighborliness must be a part of the movement if the movement is going to really be about a better society - a better community.

I have not been able to be part of Seattle's Occupy community - to either turn up the heat of agitation or provide a calming presence that fosters neighborliness. This timeout for me has been a great lesson in humility and patience. Despite daily hopes of heading out to be present with folks, to hear their stories, to pray with those who need, or to witness the yearnings of so many who hope for so much better, I have been sidelined. And, somehow, miraculously, the people continue to walk, chant, and agitate...all without me. Amazing. (I hope you are reading the sarcasm in my fingers that type this.)

Movements like this need us all. Yet, movements like this are bigger than any one of us. The church is like this. It needs every caring hand to reach out and every gospel changed heart to pray. But, church is bigger than any one of us. It is about a dream, a hope, a vision of another world, a new heaven and a new earth. We are not indispensable as individuals. Yet, we are vitally needed. I don't know what will wind up happening with the overall Occupy movement, especially as cities begin to crack down on them. On this point, the Occupy movement could learn from the Jesus movement. We certainly faced steep odds in the face of enormous empire, and we found a way to thrive. What I do know about the Occupy movement is that its work is not done. It has achieved an amazing amount by casting the whole nation into conversation about banks, the economy, the intersection between greed and the environment, and the ruthless treatment of the poor. Mazel tov! There is more to be done, though. Money is still the language of politics. Money still flows to the wealthy and not to those in need. Money will always threaten to displace honest and sincere dialogue about the common good. The goals of the Occupy movement will still be there when my leg finally heals and I can walk with them down this journey. But, part of me wishes that this were not so. The better part of me wishes that all of the concerns would be addressed so that my ambulatory self would be unnecessary. The better part of wishes that the powers and principalities that so desperately want to hobble the Occupy movement would themselves be hobbled such that their limitless power no more could hurt, foreclose, outsource, defraud, and impoverish the working class and the unemployed.

I am in a reflective mood these days. it is hard to let go. It is difficult to know that all that I have to offer are my prayers. But, perhaps that is my lesson this time around. Perhaps it is my gift. I have prayer to offer. I have perspective, distance, and prayer. I do not need to hobble the Occupy Seattle scene with my presence. Rather, I can use my wounded body to remember all who are wounded, all who struggle to make it through a day, all who cry out in pain. I can carry my crutches as a reminder that our culture leans on oil and other dirty energy. Every time I lean forward to swing my hurting leg onward I can think of how we lean on the least and the last and allow them to hold the rest of us up and provide us with cheap goods. Every time my knee spasms or my back hurts I can feel the pain of those without work, those losing their homes, those who do not think there is anything good left to feel. And, I can hope for the time when I will be free from these crutches, unencumbered and truly myself once again just as I hope for police who act with restraint and city councils who do not turn deaf ears to the cries of pain in their communities and a Congress that will seek a common good and a president who will move the country toward peaceableness, clean(er) energy policies, and neighborliness throughout the world. I cannot be in the streets right now, but I can pray for those who are. And, pray I will.

I will not hobble the Occupy movement by withholding my prayers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Women, Men, Media, Rape, and Perception

Recently, I've been in a number of conversations about gender with guy friends, congregation members, and colleagues during which I hear that women cry foul too frequently. Men, they say, are just as likely as women to be subjected to negative stereotypes; they are presented with images of the perfect male body that they, like women, can never achieve. I believe that I surprised my male conversation partners by partly agreeing with them. Air brushed photos of male models portray ideals of the male body that the typical man will never have. Media and culture consistently parade before us the hero who can withstand an inhuman beating and then rise, unaffected or (even better) sexily battered, to find victory. Again and again, men are told what strength, manliness, and courage mean, and frequently they have something to do with the ability to beat up, overcome, dominate, or subjugate another. I agree with my conversation partners. Men are subjected to bad images of what it means to be a "real man." And yet. And yet...

Women still face obstacles that men don't. Women make up 51% of the United States and yet they constitute 17% of Congress. There have been 44 US presidents, all of them men. While women are closing the gender gap in highly competitive fields, they are still resoundingly outpaced by men. Only twelve Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. Women are going to medical school and into specialties like General Surgery in increasing numbers, but they have a long way to go to reach parity with their male counterparts. Even in my own field - my own denomination - women make up only 29% of United Methodist clergy. This is just data. None of this speaks directly to attitudes, workplace hostility, or social pressures, other obstacles women face in work and culture. However, this data do point to those things. Women, by choice or by coercion, still have a long way to go to find parity with men in the workplace.

The movie "Miss Representation" takes a hard look at the depictions of women in media. These depictions have consequences. They inform how boys view girls. They affect how girls view themselves. Images are powerful things. They are painted with brush strokes, through camera clicks, on TVs and movie screens, and they are described in words. Images of women in general and depictions of specific women affect how we as a culture view and value women, and they become the lenses through which girls interpret themselves.

In tonight's GOP debate, Herman Cain, despite battling accusations of sexual harassment, did not find it necessary to censor himself when speaking about Nancy Pelosi. He referred to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the most powerful women in the world, as "Princess Nancy." Following up on Cain's inability to self-censor, Todd Kincannon, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, posted a series of other nicknames that could be used to describe Nancy Pelosi. They ranged from "The Botox Bitch" to "The Crabby Cunt from the California Coast." In what universe should this be allowed out of the mouths of people running for office or advising and influencing those in office? And, what does it tell boys and girls about women when they hear people as powerful as Nancy Pelosi referred to in such a dehumanizing manner?

Of course, the big news of the day (the week, actually) is the ever evolving and horrific story of a former Penn State football coach's serial sexual predatory behavior against boys. As horrific as the abuse was, as long lasting as this abuse is and will remain in the lives of these now young men, I can't help but think that it is considered worse because a man abused boys. Sexual assault against women and girls is considered heinous in the country, but not as heinous as assault against men and boys. Why is that? Look at our media. Music videos by both men and women routinely portray women on the receiving end of violence in general and sexual violence in particular. Rape of women and girls? Bad, but, you know, part of our culture. Rape of men and boys? Repugnant. Stomach turning. Deserving of the death penalty. Moreover, religion, including Christianity has been complicit in promulgating the idea that women are subordinate to and therefore less than men.

Wrong. Rape of any kind is repugnant, stomach turning, and evil. Rape leaves life-long scars. It robs people (men and women) of the ability to bond in healthy ways, to enter into intimacy, or to see themselves as beautiful and wonderful beings. Rape does not affect women less. Women are not better made to accept the violence done to them.

I don't want to overstate my position. Men are subjected to idealized images. They are dismissed when they are too handsome. The are ridiculed for being too fat or too short. Men are given a set of acceptable ways to express themselves in society. It's simply that the ill treatment of women, whether overtly or implicitly, is more accepted by society. Implications of violence, especially horrific sexual violence, against women remain within the bounds of acceptability in our culture. This is true despite incredible gains made by women over the past few decades.

It seems to me that this is an issue for our churches. If it is part of our goal to continue Jesus' culture challenging and earth changing ministry, if it is part of our mission to continue his work of healing, lifting up, and reconciling, then we have to look at how our churches and our faith have helped support unhealthy images of women. We must change the messages that our little boys are learning about the value of little girls. We need to teach our boys how to respect girls and how to relate with them in ways that are not relegated to that of potential sex partner. We have to teach our girls that God has given them creativity, joy, intellect, and strength, and that it is part of their lives as faithful beings to cherish those most wonderful and holy parts of themselves.

A core teaching of Christianity is the resurrection of the body. Paul uses quite a bit of ink discussing the importance of real live bodies. New life in Christ is not just in the afterlife. Neither is it wholly concerned with inner life. We are embodied beings. We relate with the world and with one another in only one way - through our bodies. We experience the world through our bodies. Embodiment - incarnation - this is crucial for our faith. Since this is so, it seems that for our churches to be faithful, then they need to spend time better talking about, addressing, caring for, and celebrating bodies. This includes teaching both boys and girls about healthy ways to treat bodies, healthy ways to honor one another, and healthy ways to imagine what it means to be a person with real integrity.

To address this, Queen Anne UMC will be screening "Miss Representation" on November 18 at 7:00 PM (1606 5th Ave W, Seattle, WA). There will be a conversation about the film and the themes it covers. Come join the dialogue. For more information, visit our website at www.qaumc.org.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Reformation Sermon: The Giant Rummage Sale

Joshua 3:7-17, Matthew 23:1-12

A lot of people sat on the edges of their seats when game 6 of the World Series went 11 innings. It ended in an upset with the Cardinals scoring in the bottom to take it 10-9. The Cards followed up in a much less interesting seventh game to win their 11th title. But, even as many in the country had their eyes on baseball this weekend, another professional sport has held the attention of others: the NBA. Embroiled in a lockout, players and owners remain in a standoff, both sides hoping that the other will flinch first. In the center of the conflict is how to divide the league’s revenues: the owners want a 50-50 split. The players want a 52.5 take. At their last collective bargaining agreement, players were guaranteed 57 percent. According to NBA players, going down from their 57% to 53%, would transfer $1.1 billion from them to owners over six years. The difference between 50 percent and 52.5 percent totals about $100 million. We are talking huge sums of money, even if the percentage points are not very wide. Because the two sides can’t come to an agreement, games have been canceled for November creating a loss of $350 million, twice the amount of the difference between what the owners and players want.

We seem to live in a world in which immense sums of money are tossed around all the time. Whether it’s Congress discussing the deficit, tax rates and breaks, infrastructure costs, energy costs, foreclosure costs, unemployment costs, war costs, or sports costs, regular people - people like you and me - (we) talk about hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars as though we can in any way conceive of what this really means. People have become used to having little while moving in a world with a great deal of money.

We live in a time of deep conflict - I don’t mean Conservative-Liberal conflict. I mean, we live in a time when we are constantly told conflicting messages: to be afraid because there isn’t enough to go around and then to live immersed in excess. Too little. Too much. Too little money. Money everywhere. Not enough food. Too much food. Food insecurity. Gas too high to buy, but still too many cars on the roads. Too many people on the planet (7 billion now, I hear). All around us are messages of too little and too much. Because we focus on the too little, we forget that excess is everywhere; it takes force to resist it, to try to live humbly and simply. Sometimes that force comes from the outside in unexpected and unpleasant ways. We are forced to live more humbly because we don’t have enough money. We sell our car. We sell our house (or we try to). We let go off cable. We don’t have a microwave. We make the decisions because circumstances dictate that they are necessary. Yet, sometimes external forces aren’t enough; despite not having enough, we still spend and spend, whether out of wants or due to needs. That is how many of us wind up in deep debt. Other times, we yearn for a more simple and humble life. We try through the force of will to live in ways that deeply resist a culture that continually promotes “more, more, more.” Choosing no cable. Growing our own food. Eating simple, whole foods. Living in smaller houses or condos. Shopping at Goodwill. Using the library. Investing in a local economy. Tying ourselves to a neighborhood. Whether or not we personally choose simplicity, our culture is steeped in a cycle of boom and bust, excess and deprivation. All around us is too little and too much.

This is not new. Throughout history, too much and too little have resided next to each other. When they rub up against each other too much and the friction grows too hot, change occurs. Excess gives way to reformation. Prophets rise. The people revolt. New worlds are made. Jesus ushered in one such time. With his life, death, and resurrection, a whole new way of living in the world was introduced. Author and teacher Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years, the world and the Church have a giant rummage sale. We let go of conventions, traditions, and institutions that have been the backbone of our world. We get rid of the stuff we no longer need, we keep the stuff that works, and we make something new. Five hundred years after Jesus was born, the Roman Empire fell (at least the Western part did) and a new world order was established. in 1054, the Church split into Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholicism, and political and social structures in those regions reflected that split. Five hundred years later, the Byzantine Empire fell and the Protestant Reformation occurred. We are now 500 years after that. We are living during one of the world’s giant rummage sale, and our culture is feeling the shocks of change. That is why our cycles of boom and bust and our lifestyles of excess and deprivation are being felt so acutely right now. The little is way to little, and the too much is way too much. They can no longer exist in any form of harmony together. Something must give way.

Today is Reformation Sunday on the Church calendar. On October 31, - on the eve of All Saints Day - in 1517 in Wittenburg, Germany, a priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed what has become known as the Ninety-five Theses to the door of Castle Church. While the specifics of his complaint centered around the selling of indulgences - or pardons for sins - Luther’s larger complaint concerned what he believed to be a gross perversion of the gospel as a whole. A gospel of grace had become a mockery. God’s free gift of grace was being peddled by the very institution set aside to safeguard the gospel. Pope Leo X in Rome had mired the church in an outlandishly expensive renovation of St Peter’s Basilica, and pressure filtered down to various regions to put in their share of money to pay for it. This resulted in widespread corruption, the buying and selling of high rank within the church, and the selling of indulgences - letters of forgiveness - for sins. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses is now considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This act changed history. We have been the beneficiaries of this change for 500 years.

For 500 years, the Protestant Church has grown and expanded. In the United States, Protestantism has become the civil religion of the country. As our country prospered, so did Protestantism. But, no longer. This rummage sale in which we live has us tossing out long held traditions and ways of doing things. This has been necessitated by a rising tide of complaints that the Church has become staid, hypocritical, hyper-critical, and irrelevant. We could just as easily hear today Jesus’ complaints of his own religious world. Just as Jesus castigated the religiously pious for their public displays, the same is happening today. Regularly on television we see televangelists in large megachurches decrying the immorality of others while they lead their own corrupt lives. Mainline denominations have become torn apart over sexual ethics while not protecting the laity from sexual predation from many clergy. We have become ensconced in debates about peripheral issues while neglecting the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized - whom the prophets and Jesus called widows and orphans. We are more preoccupied with church structure than with spreading the gospel and bringing people into the presence of the Divine. The Roman Catholic Church continues to make moral pronouncements and denouncements about others without getting its own priesthood in order. Local congregations that for so long existed because they maintained the de facto way of live have found themselves floundering as more and more Americans don’t live the same way - don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas or his Resurrection at Easter, that don’t care about Pentecost or the Trinity or the Resurrection. Because we haven’t had to know our story - it simply was a part of the fabric of our culture - we now don’t know how to live it in this increasingly secular and diverse world.

Jesus, though, tells us how to live through this rummage sale. Martin Luther understood how. John Wesley, Methodism's founder, did as well. Be humble. Be humble. Be less preoccupied with your own status and your own well being and your own self and your kind and your own way of living than you are about the least of these. For those who are the least among us, hear these words as comforting ones God. God sees your plight. God knows the wealthy and the powerful, including the Church, do not honor you well. But, God does. Jesus says that the Church will not find its power and its authority in large basilicas. It will not find its redemption is renovated worship spaces. Christians do not find salvation in public acts of religious piety, of shouting “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14) or “Lord, Lord with malice in their hearts.” Christians find redemption because God gives it. It is that simple. God saves us. The Church finds its power in living the gospel, in returning to the Word so powerful that the ark of covenant stopped the waters of the Jordan. When Jesus decries the use of larger phylactaries, he, in essence, is telling us to live out the wrapping of ourselves in the Law, not simply to do the ritual act. That is where we find our power, by wrapping ourselves in God's saving instruction and to have it inscribed in and on all that we and all that we are. This same instruction stops the waters of the Jordan. This same instruction will change the forces of our world today. Our Old Testament and our gospel lesson tell us that no sum of money, no matter how large, can compare to the vastness and the power of our God. Both scriptures tell us that God’s glory is magnificent and that our proper response to it is humility and service. God claims us. That is good news. But, when God claims us, God puts a claim on us. God forgives. God redeems. God loves. God also sends us to be servants in a broken world. To be voices of peace when there is no peace. To show by our lives and not through empty words that we follow the Lord. To seek not places of honor at banquets, but to eat with the poor in solidarity and in love. Hear these words one more time, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themsleves will be exalted.” This is the Gospel of our Lord. Thanks be to God.

Blog Archive