a blog about faith and life by Rev. Cindy Maddox

I can’t stop thinking about you. And I don’t even know your name.

We met on the playground. Your young sons were friendly and open—eager, it seemed, for companionship. My son can be a little shy, but right away he was running and laughing with his new friends. My daughter became the instant big sister to the group.

Watching them play together, I couldn’t help but notice the contrasts. Your boys, ages 3 and 5, have dark eyes and dark skin. Our daughter, age 13, has blue eyes and fair skin. Our son is in the middle, his Latino heritage showing in his brown eyes and light brown skin. None of this seemed relevant to them. They only cared about whose turn it was to be the monster and who had the better roar.

You seemed happy for conversation but not pushy. We easily could have ignored you if we had wanted to. I don’t know why I didn’t want to.

I think it was your posture that intrigued me. There was something regal about you as you sat on top of the monkey bars. Something proud. And at the same time, something beaten. Like you were a princess who lost her kingdom, or a lioness worried that she couldn’t protect her cubs.

You didn’t offer much at first—just an apology if your English wasn’t perfect because you are from a country that speaks French. You didn’t even share your name when we told you ours. Slowly I learned that you left your country because of the violence. You didn’t say so, but I know enough to realize that if you had stayed, your sons would be carrying guns before they were old enough to shave. You said you were afraid of Maine at first, afraid of you and your boys dying in the cold. You went through your meager savings in a warmer state and then headed here because you heard that we were kinder here in Maine. You had no way of knowing that the same politics driving the state you first landed in would spread here as well. And now you have nothing. Your visa has expired. You cannot work. You are living in a shelter. You have no idea when your asylum case will be heard. “We may have to leave,” you say at last, “because things have changed here.” Where will you go? You shake your head and shrug.

I look at our boys, more alike than different, and I am painfully aware of how different their circumstances. My son is currently a ward of the state, part of the foster care system. A whole tribe of people have worked for three years to get him into a safe, loving home. Our home. Your sons have nobody but you. My son pauses to drink from his smoothie, unaware of how thirsty his new friends are, how thirsty their souls are for what a smoothie cannot provide. My daughter notices there are no other cups or bottles around the playground. She gives them what is left of hers.

I try to think of how to help you. None of my ideas get past my lips because I realize how absurd they would sound to you, how truly limited your options are. So I give what I have: a listening ear, an apology for what you have experienced in our country and our state, the cash in my wallet, and a phone number to a place where you can get free clothes. I don’t know what else to do. I feel helpless. And I realize that’s what we have in common: a sense of helplessness in the face of the system. That, and a desire to protect our children from all the monsters.

As we begin to pull out of the parking lot, my daughter realizes she has an unopened bag of chips from her lunch. She jumps out and gives them to you. My son starts to cry because he wanted those chips. I explain to him that his new friends don’t have any chips, and we have more at home. I explain that they don’t have much to eat. I tell him they don’t even have a place to live. He says, “They could live with us.”

I know it’s an impractical solution. We’re still adjusting to life with four of us instead of three, and our home isn’t that big. Even as the thought occurs to me, I laugh at the absurdity. We have almost 600 square feet per person, and they have – what? A place to sleep that they can’t even call their own.

It’s an impractical solution because there are hundreds, thousands, in our community just like you. You just are real to me because I met you on the playground and our children played together and I liked you.

I came to the office this morning expecting to find a voicemail from you. The number I gave you for free clothes was at my church. You know you can reach me here. I expected you to call asking for more help. I am relieved that you didn’t because I don’t know what else to do for you. I am disappointed that you didn’t because what I gave you was so small, and I should be able to do better. I am ashamed that you didn’t because today I read “When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in?” 

I can’t stop thinking about you. And I don’t even know your name.

DSC_0590When I was interviewing with my current congregation, the search committee asked me a wonderful question: If you were able to write a note to your newly ordained self, what would you say? I came across my answer today and decided to share it.

A note to my newly ordained self

First, congratulations. You worked hard to get here. There were people who opposed your ordination on principle, but you believed in your call and you stayed the course in order to open the door for others. You should feel really good about that. Now don’t forget the lessons this process taught you:

  •          Rely on the strength of those around you.
  •          Believe in the power of music to get you through.
  •          Remember that the conflict was caused by clergy and the solution found by a layperson.
  •          Don’t take it personally.

That last one—that’s a big one. If you do your job well, someone will always be upset with you. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about you. That doesn’t mean you didn’t screw up. You probably did. But angry, wounded people will try to blame you. Listen to their complaints and if they have merit, take responsibility. If they don’t, learn to let it go. Learn now. It gets harder.

You know that problem they handed you the day you started at your first church? I hope you learned from that experience the importance of face-to-face conflict resolution. Also learn that you can’t fix in a day what took years to mess up. Be patient. With others and with yourself.

Lots of what you learned in seminary will serve you well in the church. Lots won’t. Few of your parishioners will care about your eschatology. Many will care about your authenticity. Be real. Be you. It’s not a bad thing to be. And remember that your greatest lessons will come from unexpected sources.

And that self-care stuff that experienced clergy talk about: they mean that. But you’re not going to understand until you’ve faced it, so I won’t waste my breath. Just try to remember one thing: you’re not Wonder Woman. Or, come to think of it, Jesus.

Since you’re not Jesus, you will not be able to raise people from the dead. And you will want to. You will sit and hold hands with the dying and will want desperately to keep them here . . . and not just for their loved ones’ sake, but for your own. You will lead funerals with your heart in your throat, which makes it hard to speak. But the good news is, any words you speak will come through love.

You will make mistakes; make them with love. Your judgment will not be perfect; err on the side of love. And when you find yourself stuck or frustrated or overwhelmed, remember that the way out is the way through and the way through is the way of love.

And finally, always remember the lessons you learned fishing with your dad:

  •         If the fish aren’t biting, try something else.
  •         The flashy lure may catch their eye, but it’s not enough to get them in the boat.
  •         Creatures that feel trapped will try anything to get free, and you can get hurt in the process.
  •         Sky and water are good for the soul.

Oh, and one more thing. Be grateful. If you are trustworthy, you will get to be called pastor.

I wish I could find the article, or at least remember it better. It included tips for bloggers—I think specifically for pastors. All I remember is the suggestion that when trying to decide whether to weigh in on a particular hot topic issue, we should ask ourselves two questions: Am I an expert on the topic? and Do I have anything new to add to the conversation?

That’s why I haven’t written anything about Ferguson, Missouri or Mike Brown or Darren Wilson. That’s why I haven’t written anything about Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or Akai Gurley.

I am not an expert on race or racism. I am not an expert on law enforcement or the criminal justice system. I am not an expert on racial profiling or grand juries or gunshot residue or choke holds or children with guns. I am a middle-aged white woman who lives in a predominately white neighborhood, who pastors a predominantly white congregation. Anything I would say about racism in America would be so wrapped in white privilege that it might as well be a white sheet.

This also means I have absolutely nothing new to add to the conversation—no unique point of view, no special insights, no life-changing metaphor with the power to transform systems of oppression. According to the “rules,” I should not write a blog post.

But keeping silent feels like cowardice. It feels dreadful to sit in my office and write lovely sermons for Advent, when God’s children are dying in our streets. But I am not an expert, and I have nothing new to add to the conversation. I would only be one more voice.

But yesterday I made a choice. I decided to be one more rather than one less. I will be one more voice saying it’s not OK to kill an unarmed teenager and then demonize him. I will be one more voice saying it’s not OK to choke the life out of someone for selling cigarettes. I will be one more voice saying it’s not OK to kill a child who is carrying a toy gun. I will be one more voice calling for accountability. I will be one more voice crying out against the violence. I will be one more white woman who doesn’t get it—who sometimes doesn’t even want to get it—saying black lives matter. Even though the phrase “I can’t breathe” gets stuck in my throat because of so many years of my own silence, I will be one more voice.

Yesterday I was one more marcher. There were six hundred of us, the paper says, participating in a protest march billed as “family-friendly.” It was nothing compared to the protest activities of some of my friends and colleagues. I was not toe-to-toe with marchers whose anger gushed outward in violence. I was not putting my body between cars and protestors lying in the road. I walked in the cold and carried a sign and wore out my voice with chants. Not exactly the stuff of great civil disobedience. But today the chants still ring in my head.

Black lives matter.

Hands up. Don’t shoot.

We can’t breathe.

No justice; no peace.

This is what democracy looks like.

I couldn’t help but remember the last time I marched those same streets: the Gay Pride Parade in June. We walked in the opposite direction, in more ways than one. On that day I was filled with joy: walking with my parishioners behind our rainbow “God is still speaking” banner, proud to be the pastor of a church that is so public in its stands. I wore my clerical collar—which I own primarily for protest rallies and court appearances—because I believed it was important to be a visible counterpart to the ministers who spew hate. When the parade was finished, I took my place at our church booth under the sign “Wounded by the church? Please come let us apologize.” I listened to people’s stories of how their bodies and souls had been ripped open by the church and its ministers. Then I offered them a heartfelt apology for the horrific things that had been done to them in the name of God.

But a parade is not a march. Yesterday I wasn’t filled with joy. I wasn’t proud to be there. I was angry that any of us needed to be. This time it wasn’t my clergy collar that connected me to acts of shame, but rather the color of my skin . . . which I can’t take off after the march and leave in the drawer until the next time I want it to mean something. And at the end of the march, there was nobody to whom I could apologize—either on behalf of others or for my own unexamined bigotry. In other words, I had no power. I had no privilege. And I hated it.

Yesterday I was just one more marcher, one more voice. It’s not enough. It is so far from being enough, it’s embarrassing. But the first and only song we sang at the march spoke truth: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Maybe losing my voice at the march is one step toward finding it.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2T216XgiO0

Inside the Stable

IMG_0577One of my favorite family traditions from my childhood occurred each year early in the Christmas season. (Now I would call it Advent, but in the evangelical church we didn’t call it Advent. I guess we weren’t much on waiting.) Setting up the nativity scene was always the most important part of our decorating. But it was more than decorating; it was faith formation. My family would gather together, and as the adults read the Christmas story from the Bible, the kids would put all the nativity figurines into place. Each year we had to ask which way was East, so that we could be authentic. And, after breaking a wing from falling off the top, the angel then got placed on a nail driven into the top of the stable.

But as a child, one thing always bothered me. I placed everybody in the stable very carefully; but the next day, everybody had been moved. The cow and donkey were now beside the stable, and the wise men were kneeling before the manger but on the top of the Ethan Allen table, not in the stable. It didn’t take me long to figure out that my mom moved everything after we went to bed. She wanted it to look nice. I wanted there to be room for everybody. I didn’t want anyone left out in the cold. Not even the cow.

When I left home, I continued the family tradition with my hand-me-down nativity set. I often invited close friends to join me, so now I have memories of a wide variety of people helping me tell the story and move all the figurines into place . . . people who have come and gone, as friends tend to do, but people who were important to me at the time. They are beautiful memories, even if some of them are painful. There is always room for both.

Then there was the first year that Jackie and I were married. When we continued the tradition as our new family, Jackie asked, “Where’s the little drummer boy?” I laughed. “The little drummer boy is not in the Christmas story,” I said, probably condescendingly. She insisted that the little drummer boy was a very important part of the story, and he should be included in every nativity scene. I teased her about it until she finally explained to me that the little drummer boy was important to her because she had grown up poor, and she knew what it was like to not have anything to give. The next year she got a drummer boy for Christmas, and he is part of our nativity set even though he doesn’t match. And he is always inside the stable.

This year we set up our nativity scene the day after Thanksgiving. That’s earlier than usual, but we had a very special little boy with us, and we wanted him to be part of the tradition. As I read the story, he happily named all the animals as we put them in place, and he carefully repeated “Baby Jesus” on cue. Then Jackie added the story of the little drummer boy, and our little Dude put him in the stable, too. When we were all finished, he studied the characters for a while. Then he drummed on the table. We laughed and said, “We have our own little drummer boy.”

And then I cried . . . because I don’t know if he will be with us for another Christmas, or if he will become one more person who has come and gone. Either way, he will always have a place in our memories, and in the stable. Nobody gets left out in the cold.

No Holy Hate

Born LovedDear Heidi,

You have no connection to our congregation as far as I know, but today you went on our church’s Facebook page to condemn us. You said we are “dragging the name of Christ into the gutter” and “turning Jesus Christ into a sodomite” because we welcome all God’s children equally. Although I am unclear how an action we might take today would have any bearing whatsoever on the sexual practices of a man who lived 2000 years ago, I will set that aside for a moment to address your other claims.

I know you mean well, Heidi. I know you believe you are doing the work of the Lord by pointing out the (perceived) sins of others. I also know that getting into a biblical argument with you is pointless—not because I do not know my Bible, but because you apparently do not know my Jesus. My Jesus is not concerned about being dragged into the gutter; in fact, that’s where he met some of his best followers. But he is concerned about love. And he most certainly is concerned about people damaging the souls of his children by telling them God hates them.

This is why, on June 21, my church will have a booth at the Pride Portland Festival here in Maine. The sign above our booth will say: “Wounded by the church? Please come let us apologize.” That’s right, we will be apologizing to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people for the way they have been treated by the church and for the horrific things said to them in God’s name. In other words, Heidi, we will be apologizing for you.

You warned us that we will be held accountable for every person we “lead to hell” with our “deceptions.” Will you also be held accountable for every teen who commits suicide because he has been told he is an abomination? Will you be held accountable for every woman who hates herself because you said God hated her? No, I don’t believe you will be . . . not because you are not responsible, but because we worship a loving and forgiving God. In fact, if you want to come to Pride, feel free to drop by our booth. I will apologize to you on behalf of the church that infused your mind with such hurtful images of God.

Hate cannot be made holy by sprinkling it with water and calling it Christian. And the resurrected Christ cannot be re-created to condemn those who you disdain.

You said we have nothing to teach the world. I think that’s something.

 

question mark

If you spend any time at all on Facebook, you have seen them: the ubiquitous character quizzes.
“Which Harry Potter character are you?”
“Which Walking Dead character are you?”
“Which Super Hero are you?”

Then there are the pop culture identity quizzes:
“Which 80s pop song are you?”
“Which Broadway musical are you?”

And don’t forget the “actually” quizzes:
“What city should you actually live in?”
“What career should you actually have?”
all implying that the life you live isn’t actually right for you.

I am willing to admit that I have taken a couple of these quizzes. After all, I’m a connoisseur of all things Harry Potter. So naturally I wanted to know if I am Remus Lupin (a compassionate and courageous werewolf) or Hermione Granger (the brilliant book-lover who is mistakenly referred to as “an unsufferable know-it-all” by those who don’t understand her intelligence.) When that particular quiz declared that I was Hagrid (the wonderful but not-too-bright half-giant), I decided it was tragically flawed and most likely created by someone approximately fourteen years of age. I tried to take a couple of other quizzes, but they all seemed to depend upon my choosing between various Beyonces, which I am incapable of doing due to lack of knowledge.

I’m not sure who originally said this, but I heard somewhere that if a person from an earlier time suddenly appeared in ours, the most difficult thing to explain to them would be this: that many of us hold in our hands a device that is capable of accessing an entire world of information, and we use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers. And now, apparently, we must add that we use it to take quizzes. According to Josh Haynam, co-founder of a quiz-building site called Interact, 4.3 million people tweeted with #quiz in the week prior to his article dated May 6, 2014.[1]

These quizzes are mildly entertaining, I admit. But I have to wonder what their popularity says about us as a society. Why do we find it entertaining to be equated with fictional characters? Why is it fun to be pigeon-holed in this way?

Haynam gives three reasons for the popularity of online quizzes: 1) Being categorized helps us make sense of the world; 2) Sharing our results makes our own journey through life significant; and 3) We desire connection, and taking quizzes allows us to “talk with” the quiz, as well as to connect with other people who get the same result. I do not doubt the importance of connection. Hey, I’m a pastor. Human need for connection is an important part of my job and my worldview. And while categorizing can certainly be helpful in understanding concepts and relating to people, I don’t believe that having someone I’ve never met categorize me helps me in any significant way. And really—do I need to share “I am Cat Woman!” to make my life journey significant?

What it boils down to for me is that these quizzes allow someone else to define us . . . someone we have never met, and based on the most trivial of reasons. It took me a long time to stop allowing myself to be defined by others, to stop being who other people thought I should be. If I am completely honest, I have to admit it is an on-going task. Perhaps that is why I don’t like these quizzes. I got tired of giving away my power. I grew weary of looking to others for validation. I worked too hard for self-actualization to be told I “actually” should have a different life.

Those of you who are frequent online quiz-takers are probably thinking that I really need to get a life. It’s harmless entertainment, after all. And I’m sure you could have a field day speculating on the psychological and theological significance of my Angry Birds habit. Still, I find myself wanting to create my own quiz . . . a quiz that asks about your favorite color, ideal vacation spot, and perfect life slogan, only to provide one possible result, regardless of your answers: You are God’s beloved! You could post my quiz on Facebook, along with your results, and your friends could chime in, “Hey! I’m God’s beloved, too!” and we would all be connected and would experience all the compartmentalization we need. Of course, we don’t need a quiz to tell us that; but since we seem to be turning to Buzzfeed for validation, it couldn’t hurt.

But perhaps we would rather be Spiderman.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.business2community.com/content-marketing/addicted-buzzfeed-quizzes-business-can-benefit-0874722#!NMqHz

Wedding rings

I was driving home from dinner when I realized that my hand felt funny. I looked down and realized why. My wedding ring was missing.

I searched my pockets, the inside of my gloves, my pockets again. When did I lose it? I had taken it off this morning to put on lotion, but I was sure that I had put it back on. I would have noticed sometime during the day if I hadn’t. I did a quick U-turn and headed back to the restaurant, afraid to hope that I would find it, but not willing to believe I wouldn’t.

It’s replaceable, I told myself. We can afford to buy a new one. But I didn’t want a new one. I wanted this one. I wanted the one my daughter-to-be had carried in her basket of flowers down the aisle, the one my wife had slid on my finger with tears in her eyes. A new one would be bright and shiny. I didn’t want bright and shiny. I wanted the beauty of a well-worn ring.

I thought of John and Angie. We celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary one Sunday during church, and after worship Angie and I were chatting. She told me how excited she was when John gave her a ring. “I fell in love with it,” she explained, “because of the rose gold flowers circling a wide gold band.” I looked down at her hand to admire the ring and saw only a plain, thin gold band. “What happened to it?” I asked rather stupidly. She laughed and said, “Well, Honey, after sixty-two years, it wore off!”

I was 45 when Jackie and I married. It is quite unlikely that we will live long enough to celebrate a sixty-second anniversary. Plus, our rings are titanium, which is much harder than gold, so they will not wear away like Angie’s did. But no matter how many years we are given together, I want my ring to mark the time. I want it to show the journey, the way our laugh lines tell our story.

When I returned to the restaurant, I searched the space where I had parked, my path to and from the restaurant, and then the table where we had sat. I moved the chairs, looked under the table, then backed up and looked again, my panic growing by the second. And then I saw it, peeking out from under the base of the table, visible only to someone who was searching. I grabbed it and slipped it back on with a huge sigh of relief. In that moment I looked up and saw a woman staring at me. She had a worried but hopeful look on her face. I nodded, and she grinned. “My wedding ring!” I mouthed. She nodded again, knowingly, smiling all the while.

I don’t know how my ring fell off, but I’m so glad it’s back where it belongs. The blue etching isn’t as bright as in the picture. In fact, it looks rather gray. And I am thankful.

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