a blog about words and faith and life by Cindy Maddox

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A love song. Still.

nativityI’m not usually a stickler for tradition. In our family there are very few things we “have” to do for Christmas. We can decorate the tree three days before Christmas, and I won’t complain. We can eat tacos on Christmas Day, and it won’t bother me a bit. We can skip the driving tour of Christmas lights, and you’ll hear nary a word. But don’t mess with my nativity scene.

It started when I was a child. Each year we put up the nativity scene together as a family. My sister and I would take turns reading the story out of the Bible, while the other one moved all the figurines into place. I have continued the tradition, so as far as I know, every year of my life I have set up the nativity scene in this manner, often inviting a close friend or two to participate. I now have memories of family and friends from years past—some who are no longer part of my life, others who always will be. In my memory, these scenes have always been joyful, peaceful, even sacred events.

And then there was last night. It was December 20 and our nativity scene had not yet been put up, so we tried to squeeze it between family dinner and the Longest Night Service at church. Things did not go as planned. I read the scripture but the kids kept arguing, and my wife was trying to protect the moment for me. While I tried to read of peace on earth, I heard:

–Give me the cow.
–You already have a cow.
–But I made a space for it.
–It’s my cow. And my donkey. And my camel.
–Stop bumping them into each other. You’re going to break another horn.
–I smell pee.
–Why do our donkeys only have one ear?
–It’s a cult.
–Mom, she took my cow!
–I still smell pee. Why am I smelling pee?

By the time I got to the magi “going home by another way,” I was ready to find an alternate route, myself. I said nothing when my teenager stood up and declared, “I’m glad I only have to do that one more time before I go to college.” I swallowed my disappointment that she doesn’t treasure my tradition, knowing full well that it has always been more about my needs than about my children’s.

I went to church to lead our Longest Night Service, a service we offer each year for those who are struggling. It’s not a well-attended service, but I offer it every year because it’s so important for those who do attend. I led us through words and silence as I lit candles of grief, pain, fear, and struggle. We sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We lit votive candles, some of us naming our burdens, others not.

I looked out at the people gathered. I know what brought many of them to that service—the pains they carry, the losses that are fresh, the losses that are old but will never heal. And I suddenly realized the connection between this service and the rushed and unsatisfying ritual I left at home. Pain comes when things are not what we want them to be. We aren’t standing next to our beloved. Our relationships are not what we hoped for. We argue over who has what and our noses are filled with the scent of failure. It’s no wonder so few people want to come and name that, because once we do, there’s no going back to pretending.

After we lit our candles, I read the words of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, with its haunting third verse:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we, through bitter wars, hear not the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise and end the strife, to hear the angels sing!
The angels sing a love song . . . a song about God’s love for humanity, in all our brokenness, in all our not-enough-ness, in all our too-much-ness. In spite of everything, still, the angels sing. Still, love is born. Still, we walk toward the dawn.

Always. Nevertheless. Still.

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Let That Sink In

I started noticing the trend on Facebook shortly after the election.

–The candidate who received 3 million more votes was not elected. Let that sink in.

–80% of evangelicals voted for a man who shares none of their values. Let that sink in.

–He admitted that he sexual assaults women, he mocked a disabled reporter, and he encouraged violence against dissenters—and still got elected. Let that sink in.

I did. I let all of this sink in. I still mourned not only what was, but what could have been. But I got over the shock, and I let those facts sink in. And then it got worse.

–The president of a country founded on religious freedom just banned a group of people based on their religion. Let that sink in.

–The president doesn’t believe the U.S. intelligence community but does believe the head of an enemy state. Let that sink in.

–Apparently we can’t afford SNAP benefits or healthcare, but we can afford a huge tax cut for the wealthy. Let that sink in.

And I did. I let it all sink in. And then it got worse.

Now it’s the free press being named a threat. It’s our civil liberties going down the drain. It’s our very democracy endangered by tyranny.

Now it’s children in cages. It’s families being separated or incarcerated indefinitely. It’s children too young to know the name of their country being expected to defend themselves in court.

And I’m still hearing “Let that sink in.”

No, I bloody well will not let that sink in! What sinks in is absorbed. What sinks in becomes invisible. What sinks in becomes the norm.

I will not let this shit sink in. I will march against it. I will rage against it. I will name this reality in all its absurdity and terror.

We must not let the lies and the horrors sink in.

Do you know what needs to sink in?

Courage. Courage must sink into our marrow so that our backs will not break under pressure.

Resilience. Resilience must sink into our connective tissue so that when one part of the body needs to rest, we still stand strong.

Compassion. Compassion must sink into our veins so that when another bleeds, we will work both to staunch the flow and to heal the wound.

Let that sink in. Let courage, resilience, and compassion sink in.

Or we will all be sunk.

 

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim

walls.jpgLast night I dreamt I was Muslim.
I did not wear hijab
but I wore it in my heart
and they knew
and it was enough.
At first we could avoid them,
taking alternate routes,
changing our plans because we could not
change their minds.
Avoidance kept us safe.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
The escalation came without warning.
Stone walls and iron gates kept us in or out
I was never sure
We huddled together
safety in numbers or barreled fish
I was never sure
We prayed
I watched
I was never sure
.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
Or maybe I was an ally,
with them in body
because solidarity demands not spirit
but flesh and blood
messy incarnation
.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
I woke up afraid.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
I woke up afraid
of what I must do
now that I am

awake.

 

Meatloaf Sermons

meatloafI love to preach. I enjoy the research—the exegesis we preachers like to call it, which is a seminary-approved term for sitting around reading commentaries. I like to learn, like to sort through the variety of opinions about a text and come to my own understanding. I enjoy trying to find something relevant to my community in this ancient text so far from our own context. I love the writing, the crafting of sentences and paragraphs that I hope will bring the message alive for my congregation. And I love the preaching itself, that time when I stand before my people and share what is in my mind and on my heart, and pray that it reaches theirs.

Faithful to what I was taught about preaching by Dr. Thomas G. Long, I try to name the goal of the sermon, worded in infinitives: To teach them that, or to motivate them to, or to challenge them for, etc. Then I try to balance. Preaching can’t be all teaching, or we forget to apply it. It can’t be all comfort, or we get lazy. It can’t be all challenge, or we get tired.

Recently I’ve been on the challenge side of the equation. I have called my congregation to action. I have been stronger and more pointed in my speech. This serves an important purpose, but I know I can’t do it every week.

So this week I promised a meatloaf sermon. Comfort food. Not too spicy. A reminder that we gather at the table as one family. The lectionary text for this week even cooperated. It seemed, at first glance, like a good scripture for a meatloaf sermon.

Not only was I wrong, but I neglected what else meatloaf means to me.

I was twenty-five years old and had been in a miserable marriage for more than three years. My husband was emotionally abusive, and it had recently become physical. But I had been taught that divorce was wrong. I believed that it was my responsibility as a Christian woman to stay, to deny myself, to pick up my cross and follow Christ.

Then, a few days before Thanksgiving, I took off my wedding ring to make meatloaf. And then I couldn’t put it back on. I just stared at it. It was not a sign of my covenant. It was the symbol of my imprisonment. I decided that I could not worship a God who would sentence me to that.

I never put that ring on again. Six weeks later my sham of a marriage was legally dissolved.

So yes, meatloaf is comfort food. But it is also resistance food. It is the food that empowered me to stand up to a bully. It is the food that reminded me of my own worth and value. It is the food that reminded me of what covenant really means … and what it doesn’t.

This Sunday I will be true to my word. I will preach a comfort-food sermon. It will be more consolation than conviction, more blessing than challenge, because that’s what we all need.

But do not believe for a minute that it will be giving in or giving up. Meatloaf can fuel an uprising.

Real or Not Real?

I don’t usually post my sermons here but thought I would share for those who are interested. This is my sermon from 1/22/17.  You can read below or watch it Here.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Preachers aren’t supposed to start their sermons with long quotes. We are told it loses our audience’s attention. But I have realized that I am perfectly capable of losing your attention all by myself so why shouldn’t I give somebody else the chance?! And this writer describes the situation in Corinth so well that I want to share his words.

James Waters writes: “In 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Paul is attempting to counsel a community that, much like our own today, is trying to navigate political schisms and quarrels amongst its members regarding which figurehead was the most authoritative or best suited to be the leader of the Corinthian Church. Much of this conflict within the church can be traced to the social, political, and religious dynamics of Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing. There was no particular event per se that caused this climate—there certainty wasn’t an 18-month election cycle which riled everyone up. Rather, many different factors made the city a breeding ground for tumultuous episodes. Corinth was once a Greek state, but had been conquered and destroyed by Rome, and then rebuilt as a Roman Colony in 44 B.C.E…. Because the Greeks bought and traded slaves all over the Mediterranean region, Corinth consisted mostly of Jewish, Syrian, Greek, and Egyptian freed men at the time of Paul’s writing, and boasted a multiplicity of laws, political structures, cultural customs, and religions. Despite this plethora of ethnicity and culture however, the Greco-Roman values of honor, wealth, and power remained the defining measurements of social status … and the dominant religious system was that of the Roman Imperial Cult [which meant worshiping the emperors as divine]. Such realities made Corinth a dog-eat-dog city; the political-economy and the religious dynamics made the city one of perpetual competition.”[1]

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that an argument over leadership arose in the Corinthians church. They divided into factions, boasting of belonging to Paul, who planted the church, or to Apollos, who grew the church, or to Cephas, whose role is a bit unclear. So Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters… that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Aw, isn’t that cute? Isn’t it sweet that Paul thinks everyone can agree? Like that is ever going to happen in the church!

But actually, that’s not what he meant. He wasn’t a babysitter telling the children to all get along and say you’re sorry and shake hands. Paul was focused on more than keeping the peace. The way he saw it, the divisions were “merely a presenting symptom of an underlying problem: the Corinthians [did] not understand that the cross of Christ was God’s way of upending their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.”[2] They were still living by the dominant values of Rome—wealth and power—instead of the values of Christ.

So Paul reminded them that they weren’t baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. They were baptized in the name of Christ, and so it was about time they acted like it. It was about time they focused on living not by the rules of the kingdom of Rome, but by the values of the kingdom of God. To whom do you belong? If you belong to Christ, then stop defining others by status. If you belong to Christ, then stop defining yourself by power. If you belong to Christ, you belong to one another.

Paul wasn’t saying “everybody just get along.” The gospel is not about “getting along with one another” but about unity in Christ, which are two very different things. “The gospel … is not about docile consensus; it’s about the radical good news that God in Christ has freed us all from what society demands we be; it’s about figuring out how to live together as a community in light of that life-altering message; and it is about spreading that good news to others. No matter what political party they belong to, what their sexual [orientation] or gender identity is, their legal status, or what race or ethnicity they claim, they too are irreducibly integral to the beautiful unity of difference which can happen in Christ.”[3]

Is this not a crucial message for us today? Still, I will admit that I struggled with my sermon this week, and I doubt I’m alone. I think pastors all over the country have struggled with their sermons this week. Do we name the inauguration and our collective feelings about it? Is it worth the risk of offending some parishioners? Or should we ignore it, following the desire of some that we “stay out of politics?” But how can we claim to be relevant if we do not name the biggest reality in most of our lives this week? Oh, some pastors undoubtedly had it easy—those whose congregations were in total agreement, on either end of the spectrum. But the rest of us? It was tough to figure out what to say.

We are a church with progressive theology, which means that many of us, perhaps most of us, have progressive politics as well. But not all of us, and we don’t run the church by a “majority rules” or “winner take all” approach. So what can I say? I can’t ignore it—it looms too large on our landscape. More importantly, I can’t ignore you and your feelings. So what can I say?

I had trouble finding the words, and I am a wordsmith.

I make my living and live my calling by words.

Words have saved me.

I have written my way out of despair.

I have written my way through disbelief.

I have written my way from my worst self to my best self

and I have no easy words for today

for I am not just a writer but a pastor,

a pastor to all of you—

to those of you who were pleased and hopeful when Donald Trump

put his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible,

and to those of you were wanted to reach through the screen

and grab it out of his hands,

and to those of you who are still too heartsick to watch;

to those of you for whom the marches yesterday meant nothing

and those of you for whom the marches meant everything.

I had trouble finding words

and when I have trouble finding words I find myself

I find myself by turning and returning to rhythm and rhyme,

to alliteration and intonation.

Sometimes my heart just needs poetry.

Sometimes the world is too hard for prose.

So forgive my speech patterns, moving in and out of verse,

but I speak from my heart, with its rhythm and beat,

praying it will connect with yours, which beats like mine.

We are alike in lifeblood and lung’s breath,

hidden beneath all that divides.

But in the church it is more than blood and breath,

more than the Bible and belief by which we are bound,

for we are one in Christ.

We belong to Christ.

That belonging defines us, refines us, and intertwines us.

It also confines us

because it places limits on what we can and cannot do.

We cannot claim Christ and deny equality.

We cannot claim Christ and oppress the poor for profit.

We cannot claim Christ and remain silent against the isms—

racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism.

We cannot claim Christ and give in to homophobia or islamophobia.

We cannot claim Christ and deny our nation’s sins.

We cannot claim Christ and let the kingdoms of the world define us.

 

In the Hunger Games trilogy, a young woman,

confused by trauma to her body and mind,

repeats a litany of what she knows to be true:

My name is Katniss Everdeen.

I am seventeen years old.

My home is District Twelve.

There is no District Twelve.

 

I have decided that when I’m afraid, I will do the same.

My name is Cindy Maddox.

I am fifty-two years old.

I belong to Christ.

I will not define myself by others.

I will not give in to hate.

I will not give in to fear.

I will speak my truth even if my voice shakes.

It worked for Katniss Everdeen.

Maybe it will work for me, for you.

Repeat what you know to be true and go from there.

And when you do not know,

when you cannot tell illusion from reality,

when truth wears camouflage and lies masquerade,

take another lesson from The Hunger Games.

Ask those you trust: real or not real?

I want to try that one, too, and so I ask you.

You believe in God. Real or not real?

You belong to Christ. Real or not real?

You believe in justice. Real or not real?

You believe in equality. Real or not real?

You believe in people over profit. Real or not real?

You believe in protecting the vulnerable. Real or not real?

You believe in love. Real or not real?

You believe in love. Real or not real?

You believe in love. Real or not real?

This is where we start.

Regardless of how we voted, this we have in common.

We will have the same mind: a mind of love.

This is where we start.

 

1] Waters, James. http://www.aplainaccount.org/epiphany-3a-2nd-reading

[2] Shore, Mary Hinkle. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.” workingpreacher.org.

[3] Waters.

 

Things I’ve given up

I am a pastor. It’s not just what I do; it’s who I am. The role comes with many responsibilities–some delightful, some heart-wrenching, and yes, some onerous at times. There are certain things you give up when you become a pastor. It simply goes with the territory. And it’s worth it–it’s so worth it–to get to do what I do. Still, there are some sacrifices pastors make, just as there are in many occupations and callings.

As a pastor, I am prohibited (by law and tax code and ethics) from using my pulpit for political purposes. I am absolutely free to discuss biblical and moral issues and decisions, and to apply the scriptures to contemporary life. This sometimes sounds political to some people, but as long as a pastor isn’t partisan, she or he can–and must–address issues that are part of the political arena because they are part of the religious arena as well.

Still, throughout this presidential election season I have tried to be careful, especially on social media.  Anybody who knows me or who has heard me preach on a regular basis can probably assume my party affiliation, but I have not promoted any candidate. I do not want to alienate my parishioners who think differently. I have bit my tongue and deleted my words before posting out of deference to our diversity. But, as the pundits keep telling us, this is not a normal election, and these are not typical candidates, and drastic times may call for drastic measures.

I may not be able to preach what is on my mind, but this is my personal blog, not my pulpit. And it is not only my right but my responsibility as a person of faith to speak truth. Yes, I am a pastor. But first, I am a Christian, and as a person of faith I must speak out against that which is the antithesis of my faith, that which is against the teachings of Jesus, that which is anti-Christ.

Racism is anti-Christ. Throughout this presidential campaign I have been shocked and appalled by the blatant racism in our society. I guess “shocked” isn’t the right word because I am not surprised racism exists. Even living here in the whitest state in the union, I am aware of the systemic racism that plagues our country. After all, I’m a good democrat, a bleeding heart liberal, a minister committed to preaching justice and working for change. I am aware of the white privilege I carry—not as aware as I should be, but I know I benefit from it as surely as I benefit from my ability to pass as a straight woman unless I’m with my wife.

What has shocked me is not the existence of racism but the validation and legitimization of it that has occurred throughout this election season. We white folks no longer have the luxury of believing it’s only a small pocket of ignorant, hateful people who hold such vile views. One of our two major candidates for president repeatedly insults “the blacks,” claims an Hispanic judge can’t be impartial, accuses Mexican immigrants of being murderers and rapists, and wants to register and/or exclude people based on their faith. His hateful rhetoric has normalized and legitimized bigotry, and I am terrified of what his actual presidency might do to our nation and to my family.

My son was three when he asked me what color I am. Not sure if this was about race or actual color, I returned the question. “What color do you think I am?” He thought for a minute and then said, “Let’s call you tan.” “And what color are you?” I asked. He held his head up high and announced with pride, “I’m gold!” He deserves better than a president who will not see him as a golden child, but will assume he is or will become a criminal because of his ethnicity.

My blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter deserves better, too. She deserves better than a president who defines women by their physical attributes, who treats women like objects who exist for his pleasure, who sexualizes even young girls, and who thinks he has the right to force his “affection” on any female he finds attractive. No, Mr. Trump, this latest video is not, as you claim, “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we are facing today.” Sexual assault is not a distraction. It is a crime and it is a sin. It is anti-Christ. And as a woman who has survived both public groping and private assault, I will not be silent while you deflect blame and diminish your own atrocities.

This is no longer a partisan issue. Or at least it shouldn’t be. As people of faith, we all should condemn rape culture and male dominance and the objectification of women. We all should condemn the scapegoating of Muslims. We all should condemn the denigrating of immigrants. We all should condemn the killing and incarceration of young black men. We all should acknowledge that black lives matter and trans lives matter and refugee lives matter. We all are responsible for making sure that what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 40s never happens again.

The experts say that other people are not changed by seeing a political post. But I am changed by keeping silent. I am a pastor. It’s not just what I do; it’s who I am. The role comes with many responsibilities, including speaking truth to power. I am giving up the right to be silent.

 

Yielding

My wife wrote an amazing piece in response to my recent blog post about funeral processions. She addresses the need for our pain to be seen and heard and recognized. I hope you will read it and give it consideration. 

http://erscandle.blogspot.com/2016/07/yielding.html?m=1