Saturday, April 23, 2011

before morning breaks

by kim

*this is cross-posted at the personal art&style blog the gracious gaze*

The story of Jesus being crucified hinges on a moment of betrayal. One of Jesus' closest turns him over in exchange for silver. 

P & I were part of a church community when we lived in DC that celebrated holy week before Easter in a really special way -- they would remember others who had been betrayed. Women who had been abused by their husbands. Children who had been sold into slavery. They collected silver of their own to donate and meditated on who, exactly, we are in the story. The betrayed? Judas?  

Another story of betrayal in the Bible appears in the book of Judges. It is the story of a woman, abandoned, betrayed, abused, murdered. Judges 19. A dear friend sent along this story from a pastor at Rutba House (written by someone who is also a friend! a friend of P's!) that deals really wonderfully with this devastating story. It also deals with how we tell stories like this, how we describe moments when God feels absent, when God seems silent.

Here is an excerpt from the article: 
The story itself is horrific—betrayal, rape, murder, dismemberment, and cover-up of the crime. The narration of the story is also horrific. 
There is no explicit condemnation of the treatment of the woman. 
Israel's supposedly outraged response is to slaughter entire towns and then rape some four hundred additional women. God's absence is horrific. In a similar scene in Genesis 19, divine visitors blind the lust-mad crowd and rescue the women being offered. In Judges 19, no such rescue occurs. God does not stop the abuse. God does not even bother to show up afterward to condemn her rape and dismemberment.  
But preaching this story heeds the only thing akin to an ethical command found in Judges 19. At the end of the story, everyone who sees the pieces of this woman's battered body say together, Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Incline your heart to her! Consider it! Speak out! God is silent, but we are commanded to speak out.
What do we learn about God when we let these things, the hard things, get to us? 

The Saturday after Jesus' crucifixion would have been different from our Saturdays before Easter. We get to shop at the grocery store for Easter dinner, fix Easter baskets, plan church outfits (oh -- just me?) confident in what the next day is going to bring: Joy! Hope! Resurrection! God! A stone rolled away, a faith restored, an empty grave. 

I imagine that that first Saturday was dark, full of wondering what would be next. Maybe even wondering if God was really there at all. 

But God was there.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


As a volunteer working and living in El Salvador, this is a word that touches my life every day. Some days I am more conscious of it than others.

I wake up every morning before 6 o’clock – the same time as my Salvadoran friend with whom I live. She leaves for work, and not long after I walk to the center of town, about 10 minutes. This my prayer time. This is the only time I have alone all day. I walk or paint or journal or sometimes just sit and reflect, looking at the lake. It is a huge luxury that I do not take for granted. At 8 o’clock the day begins. The work I do is different from many Salvadorans, giving classes in peace or art in an Art Center for Peace. And there is freedom and choice I have made which many others don’t have. But, as they do, I work hard. I work to give all that I have, all that I can. We come home at different times, my friend and I, both of us tired from the day. We eat. Wash our clothes by hand. Shower in cold water.

Solidarity is bigger than this, though. It is more than cold showers, washing clothes by hand, working hard, living on a small budget. Choosing to live this way (because for me it is a choice) and engaging in these actions is important, but not because of the actions themselves. It is important because of the message it sends to my Salvadoran friends – my friends who have become my family – and even strangers here. “You matter.” It says. “I see you, I see how you live and I see how you struggle and I am here with you.”

This is the Gospel: Emmanuel, God here with us. This is what Jesus showed us: “You matter.” He said. “I see you, I see how you live and I see how you struggle and I am here with you.” Solidarity is walking Jesus’ footsteps. It is remembering that we are all connected and we are all created in the image of our Creator. It is actively living that awareness.

It is this awareness that I work to bring into my day, living side by side my fellow Salvadorans. It is an awareness, it is a path, that can be lived anywhere. It is the call to know in your mind and to live in your actions the message of “You matter” especially to those who more often than not are told that they don’t.


meaning derived from experience with the Spanish "solidaridad" while living working and being in El Salvador.

The knowledge that we are all in this together. This understanding crosses socioeconomic, cultural, religious, and political differences. It is the recognition that each person is a created being with dignity, worth respect, just as we ourselves are. It is namaste.

It is the understanding that not only are we all in this (life living hardship joy struggle discovery) together, but that we could not do it alone; that we need each other, that we must be in it together.

This knowledge, understanding, recognition binds us together and in so doing frees us.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Yes" or "No" girl?

 by Kate

I’m tired of being a “yes” girl.  In college a good friend and myself spent countless hours (how silly) classifying the women we met into “yes” and “no” girls—oh yea, and those we couldn’t figure out what to do with we called “cool girls.”  The “no” girls were sassy, independent, passionate, and unbridled.  The yes girls were passive, interested in boys and looking good, and seemed to be more interested in the status quo and generally being nice rather than being an agent of change.  You can guess which category we continually placed ourselves in….

However, I think the older I get (it was about 6 years ago when this theory of ours began), the more I realize though I may parade as a “no” girl at work, in my personal life, and for crowds—that deep down, I have strong “yes” girl tendencies.  For one, my background is largely of the “yes” girl camp—a strong Southern suburban girl upbringing leads me to hate conflict and generally want everyone around me to like me at most any cost.  I’m concerned with my appearance.  
But beyond that I think my strongest “yes” girl tendency is my propensity to say just that—“yes,” to everything.  I say yes to most every volunteer project asked of me, I say yes to getting asked on a first date (even if I can’t stand the guy).  I make time for friends and students on their terms, saying “yes” to getting up earlier or staying our much later than I’d naturally want to.  It’s the realization that, without careful boundary-keeping, my life, time and world becomes an open book (or truly, a doormat) for the world to walk upon.  In my saying ‘yes” I exhaust myself and become less and less a gift to those around me.  I begin to see my own time and energy as expendable and worthless—only something to be used (or sometimes abused) by others. Most yes girls can go down a few different ways—either we try to do it all and emotionally/physically exhaust ourselves—or we become flakey people, saying yes to everything but following through on little.   
Why do I do it to myself? For the Southern, nice, “yes” girl—the idea of saying “no” is really hard.  It just seems mean to say “no”—especially if I can’t figure out an alternative time to meet with someone or find another person to volunteer for the task.  The “no” sounds really mean—and to over-spiritualize it—frankly, unchristian to me at times.  In my head, a good Christian girl is always available and giving.  The ultimate Southern church lady. 

However, I don’t think this is the model of behavior we get in scripture—Jesus said no to following the demands of others (we have to move onto other towns, that’s why I’ve come!).  And to me possibly the most scandalous story of women in the bible is the story of Mary and Martha, sisters who are having Jesus over for a visit in their home.  Jesus commends Mary for sitting and listening at his feet, saying she’s “chosen the better thing.”  In the presence of Jesus, Mary could say NO to being a slave of the kitchen, the to-do list, and the demands of others (like her loving sister Martha).  But by saying “no” to these outside demands, she’s able to give her ultimate YES to Jesus.  
How I hope to be a woman like Mary, seeking after Jesus with my full faith, a yes of reckless abandon.  

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Using our Power for Good

by Debbie

Rev. Debbie Weatherspoon
From a sermon I preached on September 5, 2010

In Mt. Vernon, Texas, Drummond's Bar began construction on expansion of their building to increase their business. In response, the local Baptist church started a campaign to block the bar from expanding with petitions and prayers. Work progressed right up until the week before the grand reopening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.  After the bar burned to the ground by a lightning strike the church folks were rather smug in their outlook, bragging about "the power of prayer", until the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that the church "was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, either through direct or indirect actions or means". In its reply to the court, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building's demise. The judge read through the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's reply and at the opening hearing he commented, "I don’t know how I'm going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that now does not."  

In our scripture lesson today we meet a mother who believes in and experiences the power of prayer, which for her, is having a little talk with Jesus. The desperate prayer of a parent, “Jesus, heal my child,” meets the human being who wants to be left alone.  The parent begs the God within the human being, “Heal my child.”  The human being’s response not only is not helpful, it’s insulting.  Something rises up within that parent not only to not accept that insult, but to challenge it as well. The child is healed.  The human says it is because of what the parent says.  Whatever it is, the result is healing.  And it is more than just the healing of a child’s body. It’s the healing that comes from a culture shift, a consciousness raising.  The woman begging at Jesus’ feet for him to heal her daughter is one of the "dogs."   “Dog” is a derogatory term popular at the time for describing all gentiles. It means she has no business being in the company of a Jew, much less the Messiah. "Let the children [meaning, children of Israel] be fed first," he says, "for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." In this statement, Jesus puts Jews and gentiles under the same roof.   Jesus uses the diminutive form of the word "dogs" which is translated as "little dogs," or perhaps "house dogs." Now the gentiles are no longer outside in the streets; they are now in the house. Maybe the mother saw a sign of hope in his using this form of the word.  Perhaps she sensed openness about him.  

So she responds saying that even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs; even the pets get the scraps that fall from their master’s table! She is arguing that even on his own terms, there should be something from him -- some scrap of grace -- for someone like her who comes to him in faith. She is challenging him.  Jesus does not argue with the woman.  Where the traditions of the elders and the religious law could see only an outcast, Jesus sees the woman’s heart of faith.  Thanks to this loving mother -- the dogs "will be at the table," the place of true fellowship.  He heals her child. Furthermore, from this point on Jesus expands the circle of God’s mercy to include those once considered outsiders.  He "opens himself to the whole world in mission." He welcomes all who put their faith in him.

 I would want someone like this mama advocating for me.   This woman, marginalized by race, gender, and class –taught Jesus something about inclusivity of God’s realm.  We too live in a society in which status & privilege are determined by class, race, gender, and sexual preference. We are called to dismantle the barriers that exclude.  One of the forces that creates barriers and holds oppression in place is privilege.  Those of us in positions of privilege find it enormously difficult even to recognize our privilege.  We assume that all people have the privilege which we take for granted, when in fact, many do not.  Jesus’ example of learning from this woman and being moved by her to deeper faithfulness invites us to learn from her as well.  Jesus’ receptivity to her wisdom points to a critical truth: Oppressed people often have a profound analysis of social situations, and know the paths to justice.  People in positions of authority need to heed them.  It is when we finally allow ourselves to hear and heed the broken parts of our selves – rather than casting them away from our consciousness – that we can see more clearly the paths of our own inner healing.  Following Jesus’ example of listening to and learning from this woman, I ask you now to listen for her voice in your world: 

“She speaks: My daughter is many.  She is within you, broken and weeping and raging. She lives homeless on your streets.  She goes to your schools hungry in the morning.  She is the beautiful and suffocating earth.  She seeks healing, liberation from the demons.  Where do you see my daughter? Parents, know your strengths and use them for healing.  My strengths were a clever mind, verbal dexterity, and an iron will.  My request was granted because I used my gifts in the name of healing.  Families, claim your strengths, honor them, and use them.  What are the gifts you have been given for healing?  Christians, followers of Jesus, do not back down in the face of injustice.  Persist; in my persistence I was heard.  Where will you struggle relentlessly for the healing of our children?  Where you sit in privilege at the expense of others, see it and defy it.  I was a pagan and a woman; Jesus, compared to me, was a person of privilege.  By the rules of his world, he should have turned me away.  He did not.” 
Will you?

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Meditation on Finding God in Disasters

by Chelsea

I moved to New Orleans for school two years after Hurricane Katrina.  While two years seems like a long time, the reality was it felt like the storm had hit a week earlier.   Huge relief efforts had been underway for years, but the police superintendant as well as most of the cities firefighters worked out of trailers.  A third of the city’s pre-Katrina population was still missing, the majority from poor areas who could not pay to get back to New Orleans, let alone to rebuild their homes.  It is no wonder health care professionals began diagnosing people with a combination of PTSD and clinical depression caused by the traumatic and long lasting after effects of Hurricane Katrina.
I can not count the number of times people have asked me where God was and is in Hurricane Katrina.  For those of us who find comfort in John’s sentiments that “God is love” it is impossible to reconcile God with Pat Robinson’s claim that Katrina was God’s wrath.  For those of us who are confident in the power of prayer it is difficult to wonder if God listened to the prayers of the people of New Orleans, and simply ignored them.   Probably the best answer is that God was and is everywhere in Hurricane Katrina.  I am reminded of the Psalmists reflection in Psalm 139: “where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”  Sheol is the earliest Hebrew concept of an underworld; if God’s presence can penetrate Sheol he certainly was in the midst of Hurricane Katrina.  My favorite Katrina story highlights His presence in the midst of destruction and chaos.       
This story takes place at the famous St. Louis Cathedral (yes, the one in which Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen got married).  Behind the cathedral is a statue of Jesus.   During the storm the statue’s thumb and forefinger got knocked off.  

Rather than repair the statue, the Archbishop of New Orleans decided to leave the two fingers missing.  He did this as a sign to all of us in despair, looking for God in the chaos and disaster of storms and our lives.  He left the broken fingers as a reminder that we are called to become Christ’s missing fingers in our world.  The power of this call in undeniable, just think of everything Jesus’ fingers did!  These are the fingers that rubbed spit and dirt in a blind man’s eyes and made him see! These are the fingers that overturned the money changers’ tables; that broke bread and fish so that it feed four thousand people; and these are the fingers that offer us the cup and bread of our salvation. 
Now when I wonder where God is in the midst of pain, genocide, hunger, disaster, war or disease I remember to look at my hands.  And I find hope that God is in my hands just like he is in the hands of the other billions of people in the world.  And I find joy and comfort knowing that while this can be where God’s presence starts, it is certainly not where it ends.  So how did I allow God to work through my hands today to bring healing and peace to the world? How did you allow God to bring justice and hope to the world though your hands today?      

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dating & the Worth of Women

by Kate

A few months ago I ended a serious dating relationship.  As I’ve stepped back and reflected on the experience of the relationship, what went wrong, and its ending—and now began to think about dating in the future, I’ve read a few of the popular dating books on the market.
One book I’ve always thought was funny (and now, not so secretly, really like)— is “He’s Just Not that into You.”  The general premise of the book is that women (in heterosexual relationships, the only kind of relationship explored in the book) want a relationship so badly that they often ignore the signs that a man isn’t actually interested in them.  Men, according to the book, are somewhat straightforward and will make their interest known.  Women, therefore, do best to stop over-analyzing, agonizing and instead move on with their lives until men are clearly pursuing relationship with them.  And—moreover, its in the best interest of the woman to continue to hold back during the initial stages of the relationship in order to preserve and prolong a man’s intrigue.   
However—as a budding feminist, sometimes books like this rub me the wrong way—a woman must wait for a man to initiate in order to have—and sustain-- a successful relationship?  Doesn’t it seem like a game that treats men like predictable animals?  How old fashioned and disempowering for women to wait at the whims of a man. 
Despite these initial impressions, something about this book’s line of thinking still resonates with me.  In a broken, fallen world, has something gone awry in the power-balance between men and women in relationships?  The “curse” of Genesis 3 reads “your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.”  Does that still affect us today?  How so?  Is that at the root of women desperate to hold onto and force relationships to avoid being alone while men, aware they have the women in their lives “wrapped around their finger” have license to become overbearing and controlling sometimes to the point of abuse?
I believe at the core “He’s Just Not that into You” teaches Biblically-minded wisdom and advice about the dignity and worth of human life A similarly-minded dating book that came out about 20 years ago The Rules’ first rule for dating women is to “believe you are a creature unlike any other.”  Beyond just self-help cultural mumbo jumbo, are these books helping women reclaim their God-given human dignity and self worth—and therefore also forcing the men in their lives to treat them with the same sort of respect and honor? 
Knowing many women who have some sense of low “self esteem,” manifest especially in relationships where women give up too much of their own interests, values, and put up with less-than-dignifying treatment from the partners in their lives, these books are likely filling some kind of cultural need.  Are both sexes suffering from seeing women as less than how God sees them?
I believe the problem is two-fold however—both men and women lacking some sense of the inherent dignity and worth of especially the woman’s personhood.  Worldwide, men exercise relationship violence—verbal, emotional, or physical abuse over women at much higher rates. Women, whether unaware of what “proper” treatment should look like in a romantic relationship or desperate to be in some kind of relationship, settle for less than “God’s best.”    Passages of scripture remind us over and over again of the “worth” the Lord places on human life, Isaiah 43 comes to mind: “I will give people in exchange for you.”  God so values relationship with us he’d enter the world of human brokenness and die on a cross to be near to us.  Shouldn’t we, as women, similarly believe—and therefore act, as though we are “worth” more than being ignored, disregarded, or taken for granted in any relationship—especially a romantic relationship.  Why do we settle for so much less than this?   
While on the surface these books simply teach women how superficially “play hard to get” in a sense, is it possible their aim is more to reestablish behavior patterns and beliefs that actually empower women (and men) to believe they should seek a romantic relationship only when their partner recognizes and affirms their God-given worth? Women, you are worth more than a mediocre relationship!    

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Inescapable Sensuality in Black Narcissus

Here are some parts of a recent paper about the 40s movie Black Narcissus, a movie about missionary nuns in the Himalayan mountains. I recommend it -- as you can imagine there are a lot of interesting things to see about gender, about religion, about global interaction among cultures... here is just a slice.

photo from imdb
 “Mr. Dean” predicts that by the time the rains come, the nuns who descended upon his mountain town bachelor pad will have given up their mission to serve the Himalayan natives. Black Narcissus, the 1940 British film about these nuns and Dean, their secular foil, depicts the short distance between communal religious practice and isolated madness. 

Two female characters easily embody the wayward nun (Jane) and her correct counterpart (Clodagh), yet within the larger consumptive context of convent madness in the media, Black Narcissus acts as more than merely an iteration of the virgin/whore dichotomy. 

In fact, we can usefully imagine the Protestant response to Black Narcissus by reading the movie’s plot and production choices alongside Tracy Fessenden’s helpful analysis, “The Other Woman’s Sphere: Nuns, Prostitutes, and the Medicalization of Middle-Class Domesticity,” a chapter in The Puritan Origins of American Sex. Fessenden might argue that Black Narcissus’ Catholic nuns were defined by ritualistic myth and inescapable sensuality, just as the Himalayan "heathens" to whom they had been sent to serve, within the minds of Protestant viewers.

The use of sexuality and sensuality in Black Narcissus places the depiction of the nuns’ mission within the dichotomous Protestant perspective of Catholicism that Fessenden creates. The directing and production choices are one key area in which the senses of the viewer are deliberately stirred. The color red characterizes the “Magdalene” Jane, from her Technicolor lipstick to her unveiled hair. 

photo from here
Sexuality is embedded within the setting of nun’s daily life, the palace having formerly housed a royal harem. As a result of this legacy, paintings and statues adorn the new convent, and resistance to this pervasive sexual imagery creates a battle of the senses. The nuns use new paintings and veils, attempting to cover a sacred sexuality that is sensed, rather than seen. Veiled sexuality also characterizes the interactions between the nuns and Dean. Jane ostensibly flees the habit in order to be with Dean in his cottage through the woods, yet his rejection of her advances implies doomed desire for Clodagh (at least on his part, and potentially on Jane’s as well). 

This undercurrent of sexuality bleeds into the discussions the nuns have of strange sensation. The criticisms that the nuns lobby against their new surroundings describe a discomfort with its hyper-sensuality – the air is too clear, the wind too forceful, and the sense of the sacred past too strong. The nun charged with growing the vegetables finds herself accidentally planting flowers instead, longing to see them bloom. It is as if the aesthetic cannot be resisted in this place.              

Fessenden argues that 19th century associations of Catholicism with femininity led to Protestant denouncements of convents as sites of licentiousness. The “convent expose,” according to Fessenden, was a particularly pervasive 19th c. literary genre in which nuns were exposed as prostitutes, infanticidal mothers, or frigid atheists – hearts turned cold by ritual. (170) Fessenden astutely notes the voyeuristic nature of Protestant consumption of these scandalous convent narratives (174) and points out certain key themes that made these tales attractive to such a market. Black Narcissus enacts these very themes, creating an expose of the Catholic missionary convent.  

Critically, Catholic ritual and symbol was viewed as suspect through the creation of these convent captive spaces. Fessenden describes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s depiction of nuns’ religious behavior as ranging from harmless “‘little points of ritualism’ to more dangerous forms of ‘paganism.’” (178) Molly, a former prostitute in one of Beecher’s novels, compares the nuns’ boring “chilly piety” to the passion of a Protestant housewife cleaning the house. (178) Fessenden also describes a skepticism of Catholic symbolic rituals, even involving enactment of marriage to Christ. (181) Marriage is part of the problem, as Fessenden notes it is often the existence of both the nun and the prostitute outside of the Protestant family structure that is viewed to be dangerous. Hidden female spaces are sites of danger because there is a power generated by their marginalization. Nuns can teach slaves illegally (176), the Magdalene society is a place where women’s friendships flourish unencumbered by domestic duty (180), and neither type of women depends on men for satisfaction within the “normal sex act.” (183) Access to these women, sexually and cerebrially, is blocked. 
 Likewise, veils in Black Narcissus strategically cover the women and their sensed surroundings.  The nuns, of course, are veiled by the habit to convey a restricted sensory engagement with their surroundings. In juxtaposition, Kanji’s translucent veils invite sensation, vibrant in color and embellished by bells. 
photo from here
The nuns use a veil to cover one of the sexualized statues in the palace; tellingly, during Jane’s emergence as an unveiled, sexual, perhaps mad, woman in red, the veil used to cover the statue falls. Fessenden writes, “As (at least rhetorically) veiled women, the nun and the prostitute typically signal feminized forms of instability, hiddenness, or deception.” (172) In Black Narcissus, the veil that is intended to separate the sexuality of women who once lived in the palace from nuns who inhabit it falls just as the divide between sexual discipline and escaped inner desire begins to devolve. The veil itself comes to represent the sanity to which, it seems, Clodagh has retained only by fighting to the death.

Black Narcissus links the nuns with sensual materiality, with instinctive nativism, with madness, with danger, and yet also with a sort of closeted desire (like the veiled statue, or the covered harem paintings). Likewise, sensuality remains just out of the viewer’s reach, with no characters’ desires fulfilled – Jane is never accepted by “Mr. Dean,” even when she accosts him in his living room dressed in scarlet. Those transgressions are left in the viewer’s imagination, where perhaps they are all the more risqué. Like reading the convent expose, Fessenden might argue that through viewing Black Narcissus, the questions a consumer has about their own sexual or religious entrapment are displaced by the easy judgment of a strange and secret space.