Unknown-1

At the 168th street subway station in Manhattan, four elevators are the only way to get to the surface from the 1 train. Every few minutes, dozens of people step off the train and into the dungeon to wait for an elevator to bring them up. It is truly one of the most miserable public transportation experiences, and my children and I do it every day.

When one of the four elevators breaks, it’s depressing.

When two or three of them are down, I start thinking about the end of the world.

When there is only one left, I write notes to my loved ones in my head.

Last week I was waiting in the 168th street platform and I saw a pigeon.

A pigeon, deep below the earth, with no hope of ever escaping unless this pigeon learns to board elevators or accidentally gets back on the train. This pigeon was probably born in a tree in a park, eating the crumbs that people leave (even though the signs say not to feed the pigeons). This pigeon was minding her own business one day and accidentally boarded a train. (I’ve seen it happen.) And then this pigeon got out at the worst station possible.

This pigeon will live and die at the 168th street platform.

She may have plenty to eat. She may nest safely in the grimy rafters that never see the sunlight. But she will never find a mate. She will never bathe in a pond. She will never breathe fresh air again.

This semester I have been studying providence in my systematic theology class. I have written thousands of words to my classmates, my professor, my teacher’s assistant, my family, and my friends, trying to grasp what it means to find God in a world where, no, not everything happens for a reason.

And in spite of the great thinkers and theologians that we are reading in school, I found the most solace in a haunting poem that I found in a book called Women’s Uncommon Prayers. I don’t know anything about the writer Terri Jones, but I resonate with the shadowy image of a sparrow in flight.  Enjoy:

It is not enough, Lord;
it does not suffice.
“Your eye, O Lord, is on the sparrow;
you will not ever let a sparrow fall.”
Does the sparrow know?
Can she take wing with security,
or sit safely in her nest?
Are you just a God of safety nets, O Lord?
Or does your breath beneath her wings
lift her through currents of the air,
support her as she soars and swoops alike?
Is the soaring and the swooping all the same to you?
Are the rising and the falling both alike?
Does it matter if the tide is in or out,
or if the lungs are void or full of air?
To you, eternal, changeless,
Encompasser of constant motion
in ultimate stillness,
there may be no difference:
no safety in repose,
no terror in the drop.
But it matters to the sparrow, Lord.
The sparrow knows the difference.

andykid copy

Last week Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece about Millennials leaving the evangelical church. Young people are finding faith outside the glossy café atmosphere of the latest hip church. They are reading Peter Rollins, Rob Bell, and Jay Bakker, and attending churches with smells and bells. They care about justice, the environment, equality and simplicity.

But what does that mean for our children?

A few years ago a friend said to me that he didn’t trust any Sunday school to teach his children about Jesus. I was horrified. But what about all of the well-meaning people? What about the essential Bible stories? What about the Christian community? I dismissed his feelings of frustration and focused on convincing him to bring his kids to church.

Years later I apologized.

I wonder if he and I have the same frustrations now. I am now a children and youth minister at a mainline progressive church. There are things about my experiences in the evangelical movement that are a treasure to me, but there are some things that I am ready to abandon:

1. White Jesus 

White flannel Jesus represents the Ugly to us. White Jesus represents a faith that is image-conscience and science/history adverse. White Jesus is usually accompanied by white dolls in the nursery and white families in all the books—especially the Bible storybooks. When the only people of color at your church are people on your missionary wall, what does that teach children? We raise money for the poor brown people. I am ready for a colorful Sunday school.

2. Accepted Jesus This Morning

Don’t tell us that our three-year-old accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior this morning. For so many reasons. Let’s name a few. This is not appropriate for her stage of child-development. This is not theologically responsible. You just added Jesus to the unmitigated, indiscernible list of Santa, Pretty Princess, Abraham Lincoln, and Daddy. And like Santa, he knows that you’ve been naughty.

3. Hello and Welcome to Consumerland

We don’t want to drop our kids off into a sensory overload extravaganza of color, lights, music, and fun prizes.

4. Our Kids Are Special

At our local public school we can find people who care enough about including everyone to adjust the environment, hire aides, turn down the music, and accommodate for all abilities. We are ready for the church to go after the one little sheep who needs a little extra help.  We are excited about churches that have programs for our special kids.

5. Bible Heroes? Not For My Kid.

This discussion has already gained some traction. We don’t want to see a mural on the wall that is based on mass genocide via a worldwide flood. We don’t want our kids to come out of Sunday school with a coloring page about a person that we would never allow near our children. The events in the Bible are not cartoons. When we present them as cartoons we replace the depth and meaning with a moral that is styled after “Aesop’s Fables.” This is not proper use of the Old or New Testament. Sure, teach my child about the Bible, but think about the story first. What is it really saying? What did it mean then? Is God the only worthwhile character in the story? Then let’s call God our Bible hero/heroine. The rest are just people like us, sometimes worse.

6. Cry Rooms

Okay, so we like cry rooms if we are breastfeeding or if our toddler just needs to sing ABC’s at the top of his lungs. But the point is, we believe that children should feel welcome in church. And I don’t mean that children should feel welcome to sit still. Children should feel welcome to squirm, wiggle, draw, process, sing, dance, and move around and visit friends and family. This is best for their learning styles, and this is best for the learning styles of adults. If we were to cater to the kinesthetic learning styles of children, adults would actually learn more. More about this in another post. Bottom line: stop making parents feel like pariahs for our children’s normal, age-appropriate behavior.

7. The B-I-B-L-E

We love the Bible. We want our kids to love the Bible. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask churches to stop teaching our kids the Bible, but for real. Stop.

But seriously, stop teaching our kids to take verses out of context. Stop telling our kids to use the “sword of the spirit” in arguments with friends and online. Stop having memory verse contests that reinforce the idea that the Bible is a big book of one-liners. This is the opposite of taking the Bible seriously. This is paganism. This is not Christianity. This is a fortune-cookie religion and we are not buying it.

We want our kids to ask questions, express curiosity, and wonder about everything. We don’t want instantaneous obedience—we know better.

Like I said, I am in this for the long haul. I am in seminary, I am serving kids in full time ministry, I love planning VBS, and I treasure many of my experiences in the church. But we are not raising an army. We are not raising the “future of the church!” We are not raising the latest recruits in the culture war. We are raising children. We want a Sunday school that will help us do THAT.

DSC00406

 This is the latest in a series of small group studies that I have written for the church we attend. The assignment comes from the book of Ruth.

 

Uncover

 

Ruth: Week 4

Begin by reading Ruth 3:1–18

My Old Lady

I was really proud of being a teacher, so when I found myself at home in my pajamas on the first day of school in September, I felt like a nobody. I had lost my identity. I was profoundly lost—with no number 2 pencils. I had never had a September without number 2 pencils.

I had quit my teaching job too early and moved to a new town too soon. We thought our adoption would be completed that summer and I would become a full-time mom, but it didn’t happen. Now I was in a new town with no job. I dealt with this loss by playing video games, calling old friends, and listening to sermons online in our basement. Basically, I became a hobbit. If I couldn’t be a teacher or a mom, I might as well go live underground.

But then I met my next-door neighbor, Dorothy. Dorothy’s husband had died over the summer. After sixty years of marriage, Dorothy also felt profoundly lost.

My first visit with Dorothy lasted three hours and she cried the whole afternoon. From that moment until we moved two years later, we talked every day, sometimes several times a day. Not only did we talk, but she called our home often asking for small favors, chores, tasks. I changed lightbulbs. I cooked simple things. I reached things on high shelves. We went to breakfast at McDonald’s once a week. We went grocery shopping once a week. We priced items for her estate sale. We went to get her an eye prescription and new glasses. I listened. And listened. And listened. And listened.

Dorothy wore me out.

I was so generous to Dorothy. I would dutifully put on some jeans and go fix things in her house as if I were a benevolent fairy helping the poor widow next door. But it turns out, when I wasn’t helping Dorothy or listening about life with her husband, I was moping about not having an identity anymore. I was missing school life. I was smelling school supplies at Walmart. I was practicing my new life as a hobbit. I felt pathetic.

Later we moved again, we finally brought home our son, and my sense of loss returned. Parenthood didn’t save my from my identity crisis. Dorothy did. As soon as she was gone and I was a mom, I began searching for a new identity. and once again, I felt pathetic. I had thought I was saving Dorothy, but all along Dorothy was saving me.

Ruth the Moabite is a pitiful figure. She is from the wrong side of the tracks, she is a widow, and she has no wealth to her name. And she is bound to her former mother-in-law. This girl has baggage.

Boaz stands in utter contrast to Ruth the Moabite. He has assets, he has the right bloodline, and he has a good reputation. From here the story reads quite simply. Ruth presents both her loyalty and her great need before Boaz. He chooses to take up his responsibility as kinsman-redeemer with great respect and adoration for this poor woman. Boaz saves the day and the rest is history.

When we focus on the acute details of Ruth’s life, this appears to be true. Ruth and Naomi will not survive well without a kinsman-redeemer. When Ruth presents herself to Boaz and uncovers him, she is executing a cunning, strategic, desperate plan. This act of vulnerability is a cry for help in a frightening situation. Ruth does need a savior.

But take a step back. Examine the story as part of the beautiful narrative of redemption that the scriptures paint for us. An extraordinary series of events occurs, bringing a foreigner into Boaz’s bloodline. Ruth the Moabite, this outcast, this widow, becomes part of Israel’s story. Ruth comes to Israel and says, “Take me in,” and a King is born. How does this happen?

Her redemptive work begins with Naomi. She pledges to journey with Naomi away from her homeland. She commits herself to Yahweh and Yahweh’s people. We’ve explored the idea of hesed, calling it “the kind of love given at great cost to the one who gives it. Hesed is love that willingly puts itself at risk for another.” Ruth gives us a small glimpse of the kind of love we will see when Jesus arrives, hundreds of years later. She gives up the life she knows to become an alien in a foreign land. Much like Emmanuel “God with Us” of the New Testament, Ruth promises to be with Naomi until death separates them. Naomi now has a companion and a hope for the future.

When Ruth and Naomi hatch the plan to secure their place with a kinsman-redeemer, the story begins to get murky with nuance and subtlety. Scholars debate “Did they or didn’t they?” in shelves of commentaries and sermons about the Hebrew story of Ruth. Did “feet” really mean “feet”? Were “wings” really “wings”? Would moral and chaste Ruth have truly given sexual favors in exchange for a kinsman-redeemer? Was this old guy able to have sex at all? Some scholars and students of the book of Ruth feel compelled to defend Ruth’s honor. Many commentaries devote several pages to defending Ruth’s chastity. Not Boaz’s. Just Ruth’s. They say that this pure, sweet woman never would have lowered herself to fornication, that the night was a lovely picture of restraint and unconsummated passion. She is a heroine of the Scriptures. She could not have seduced Boaz that night.

But the language is sexually charged and explicitly ambiguous. We know that Naomi and Ruth were in a desperate situation. We know that Ruth was loyal and devoted to Naomi and would sacrifice her life for this friendship. We know that Ruth had no male relatives to defend her honor, which left her vulnerable, but also made her a free agent.

Carolyn Pressler writes, “Unlike Boaz’s ancestress Tamar, who risked capital punishment for the sake of perpetuating her husband’s lineage, Ruth was not in danger of legal punishment. Biblical law defines sexual offenses as violations of the rights of a woman’s father, husband, or in certain cases, father-in-law or brother-in-law over her sexuality.” Ruth has no father, husband, father-in-law or brother-in-law. But in spite of the ambiguous language and cultural context, we still don’t know what happened between Ruth and Boaz that night.

But it doesn’t really matter. Sex is a distraction from what is happening here. Her story does not depend upon her chastity. Her story does not depend upon her gentile-ness. Her story does not depend upon her beauty, her wealth, her femininity or her class. Her story depends upon her willingness to be vulnerable and loyal in the face of great fear and instability. She knows that Boaz might deal with her harshly. He might take advantage of her. He might rescind her gleaning privileges. Her life is at stake. But she humbles herself, peals back his “covering,” lies at his “feet” and takes refuge under his “wings.” We don’t know exactly what she does that night.

But we do know that she is very brave.

Saved by the Saved

In this act of self-exposure, Ruth offers herself up to Boaz’s mercy. But he is not the only savior in this story. Ruth has brought hope to Naomi’s household. Naomi praises new hope in the form of Ruth’s first-born son:

“Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a family guardian. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”

Now the hero shifts one more time. He is not Boaz. He is not Ruth. He is a tiny baby. And in this new spring of life we find resurrection. We find hope. We find salvation. For the hearer of this story, they don’t picture a helpless, crying, probably annoying baby, but they see the grandfather to King David.

The story of Ruth is bathed in the larger narrative of all of scripture. Helpless savior, hope of the world. When we read chapter 3, full of all of its sexual tension and steamy romance, we must remember that Ruth may be a humble, desperate maidservant, but she will also embody a powerful message that underscores the story of God: Love knows no outsiders. This idea weaves  itself seamlessly into the lineage of King David and therefore, Jesus, pronouncing to Jews and Gentiles that we are all God’s children, all part of the grander story. It would be hundreds of years before Peter would see the sheet of animals lowered before him in a vision in Acts 10, hundreds of years before Jewish Christians would worship alongside Gentile Christians. Hundreds of years before Pentecost, when the languages of the nations became one under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we dig deep into the lineage of Jesus, King David, and the story of Israel, we see a woman who proved the ever-expanding love of God. Ruth was the good news before the good news arrived.

My two children are adopted—both from faraway countries. Although their birthmothers were living, they were unable to provide for their children’s needs, so they relinquished these children to orphanages. We adopted one in 2007, one in 2011.

Often when people encounter our family they say things like,

“Oh, she is so lucky to have you.”

“He is so blessed to have you two as parents.”

“What you do is a real ministry to those kids. Imagine what their lives would have been like without you.”

I know why people think this way. My children come from desperate situations, surrounded by disease and destitution. The 143 million or so orphans on earth right now suffer most often from a lack of nurture, a lack of education, a lack of basic food, water, and shelter, and a lack of identity. Abandoned because of AIDS, poverty, war, famine, drug abuse, and/or cultural pressures, these children need homes. We adopted our children because we felt that the great need gave us no other choice.

How naive.

This is no one-way transaction. In fact, we are often surprised by the realization that these powerless, victimized, institutionalized kids have the power to save us. They are Jesus in bare feet with parasites and big, beautiful eyes. We are the lost ones. As I spend my days wiping noses, changing diapers, and being as therapeutic as I can, I often forget that they have come to bring the good news of resurrection and hope to our home. Without them we would be adrift in a sea of self-centeredness and navel-gazing.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that he will come to us incognito:

“‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

The very people we seem to be saving are actually saving us.

Ruth the Moabite may seem like an unlikely ancestor for the Messiah. But the common thread of hesed links the stories of Ruth and Jesus more powerfully than any bloodline ever could. Ruth the Moabite left her homeland so that she could walk with Naomi and help her find a new life in Israel. Emmanuel, God with Us, made himself weak in order to walk among us and show us the way. Paul described Jesus in a beautiful poem in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human being,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Ruth was not perfect. She was not Jewish. She was not married. She was not wealthy. She was a woman. But she was made from the same dust as we all are. She will live and die breathing the same air that we all breathe. In spite of her lowly place in this ancient tale, she bravely places herself in a defenseless situation out of love and devotion. And she risks her safety and reputation for the salvation of her family.

When we find ourselves valuing people by their assets, their background, their rank, their gender, their sexuality, or their citizenship, we find ourselves in contrast to the narrative of Scripture. Boaz could have looked at this poor Moabite and rejected her, based on all of these qualifications and his own Jewish upbringing. But he recognized the eternal spark in her, the hesed, that reflected the very image of Yahweh, the God who loves an underdog. God’s story regularly takes a weaker vessel, a “least of these” candidate, and saves the world. Who is saving you today?

P1000682

Last year I wrote this little thought when I was thinking about submitting daily devotionals to a popular magazine. I changed my mind, so now I share this with you:

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

–Zora Neale Hurston

I left the playroom to throw some clothes into the washer. Just steps away from my two-year-old, I listened for her voice as she played with her dollies…

She came home to us from Ethiopia already a toddler, so we have spent every waking moment within a few feet of each other, working on our bond. Mabel has known no other caretaker on this side of the Atlantic, besides my husband and me. We do everything together. Everything. 

Our hearts swell when she chooses to get closer to us, and they collapse when she raises her arms up, asking to be held by strangers. One day at the park, she befriended an older gentleman and his two large dogs. Within moments I was coaxing her out of his lap. More bonding. We need more bonding. So my husband and I don’t go on dates. We don’t hire babysitters. The grandparents aren’t allowed to hold their grandchild yet. We’re bonding.

So today as I was flinging clothes into the washer (Little girls add a LOT of laundry to the household!), I strained to hear her babble. I didn’t hear anything from the playroom so I turned to check on her.  At my feet, I found Mabel.  And two dollies and a blanket.  Curled up next to the washer, just being with me.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

–Mother Theresa


P1020415 (1)

I just attended a large group event, a church service. Our speaker spent twenty minutes congratulating us on how open and diverse we all are. How we accept people from all walks of life.

That sounds great. I want to be in that church. A church that truly accepts everyone and values diversity? Sign me up. That just doesn’t happen to be the church I attended today.

I looked around the room and saw very little diversity. No one on staff looks like my kids. No role models for them on stage, in the band, in their classrooms. The majority of speakers, music leaders, announcement givers, pray-ers, all young white men. Until diversity is reflected from the stage, we cannot expect it to be reflected in the  congregation.

Every week I feel less welcome, not more welcome.

Martin Luther King, who wasn’t mentioned in this sermon on diversity and acceptance, used to say that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.”

Until this isn’t true, we have little to congratulate ourselves about. There is a lot of work to do.

 

I was walking my son to his kindergarten class when a new little friend of ours joined us. Her name is Jaylen and she is biracial. Jaylen really loves to lavish attention on my daughter, who is Ethiopian.

Another little girl approached us. “I didn’t know you had a little sister! She is so cute.”

Jaylen replied, “She’s not my sister.”

Then she paused.

“But she’s my sister in God.” And then she pointed to my son. “And this is my brother in God.” Then at me, “And this is my mom in God.”

I looked around at all the kids on the playground and thought, yes. Yes, I am.  This is what community is about. This is what adoption is about. This is what parenting is about. I am your mother.  You are my daughters and sons. We say “sister” and “brother” a lot in church and it’s easy. But this girl got my attention. We’re not just brothers and sisters. We are family.

What if we all saw others in this way?  What if we recognized our human and familial bond to every person we encounter? And what if we took responsibility for that relationship?

Through Jaylen’s eyes, the playground is a big family.  I want to see through those eyes.