Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ants in My Pants

"Doubts," Pastor Judy Walker at Delta United Methodist Church announces Sunday morning, "are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." She was quoting Frederick Buechner and preaching on a little piece of Matthew 28:17: "but some doubted." Matthew 28:16-20 is usually called the Great Commission, the story in which Jesus tells the Eleven to, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." But before Jesus commissions the Eleven, we see that not everyone believed that he had resurrected from the dead. And Pastor Judy focused on that, knowing that so few of us have heard it admitted in church that some doubted. Some still doubt. I shivered a little when I realized that she was preaching on the merits of doubt for faithful people: my answer to the provisional membership question for United Methodists seeking ordination concerning my personal experience of God was about the importance of struggle in my faith journey, and I even compared myself to Doubting Thomas, wanting to place my hands in the wounds of the Resurrected One.

But then Pastor Judy asked us to write down on a note card we had in our bulletin our answer to the question: What are the ants in your pants? There are times when naming holds a crushing kind of power, and naming through written word holds even more of that power for me. So here I am, preparing to be ordained in the Church, doing community organizing for a summer internship out of churches, thoroughly enjoying seminary, attributing my radical politics to my faith, and yet the first question that comes to my mind, the question that I have really been struggling with since first recognizing my call to ministry, is

What difference does Christianity make?

Notice that my question is not about if God's really there or who this Jesus guy is. It's not "What difference does Christ make?" I was thinking about why this was the other day while I was listening to mewithoutYou, and in "The Sun and the Moon," Aaron Weiss sings, "I used to wonder where you are. These days I can't find where you're not." That is how I feel. I have not always felt that way, certainly, and probably will not always feel that way, but now I can usually close my eyes and breathe in deeply, and then when I open my eyes again I see God in the laughter of a baby or the purring of a cat or in the mountains or even in the eyes of my sisters. Finding God is not the problem. I see God all the time, whenever I open my eyes even half-way--- the problem, for me, is that I often have difficulty seeing God in the Church.

In the sermon "Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity" on Jeremiah 8:22, a heartbreaking sermon written later in his life, John Wesley asks, "Why has Christianity done so little good in the world?" He saw, as so many of us have seen and continue to see, that despite the teachings of Jesus that show us a new way of living together, a way of wholeness and love, our world is just as unjust, as oppressive (if not worse) today as it was over two thousand years ago as Palestinians struggled under the yoke of the Roman Empire. But I think we have to expand the question out even more: not only why has Christianity done so little good in the world, but why has Christianity done so much evil in the world? People who call themselves Christians can often be such ugly people. I can often be such an ugly person, you know? So what's the point? What's the point of this whole organized Christianity thing if it is often the author of the ugliness in the world?

This is not a question I want to be asking myself as I seek to become a pastor.

And I can't end this blog post with an answer. I did not have some magical revelation that made Christianity, that made the Church, make more sense to me this week. I still hurt when I am rummaging through my bag and find that folded up piece of paper. I don't even read the question, but I see it in my mind, staring at me, asking me, What difference does Christianity make? But, though I still doubt, my heart was touched this week, soothed just a little bit so I don't hurt quite so much when my thoughts return to that question. And this story might not soothe you, but here it is.

On Wednesdays, I volunteer to work with the elementary school kids at York City Day Camp. I am super awkward with kids, though I love them, because I have always just let Kate and Suzanne work their magic on kids and considered myself not gifted in that department. Also, I am not even a little bit cool. So I usually let the kids make the first move, let them decide if they like me before I try and just get disappointed. Luckily for me younger elementary school kids are much more gracious to the uncool, and so I found myself sitting at breakfast with a bunch of six year olds who decided that we were friends. They just kept talking and laughing and being cute until one little girl started to sing. And then the rest of them joined in. It took me a moment to register what she was singing. It wasn't a silly song, it wasn't a camp song, it wasn't an upbeat praise song either. No, she was singing "Sanctuary."

Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary,
pure and holy, tried and true,
with thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary,
for you.

Thank God I did not cry because then I would have really given away how uncool I really am, but I did choke up. See, I learned the song "Sanctuary" when I was in Bosnia and Herzegovina the first time in 2004. I always associate that song with my first intense spiritual experience, when I was assured of God's love for me (which I have written about here and here). And here were these children singing this song out of the blue in their slightly off-key fairy voices. I usually don't have as strong a reaction to the song when I hear it in church, but I had never heard it coming from just children before--- it's not one I've usually heard taught to kids, though they had learned it last year at the Day Camp.

And I don't know what it means, but now every time my fingertips brush against that folded-up index card, I hear those little fairy voices singing about being living sanctuaries. And maybe that's enough for me in this moment.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviving the Stones

Every time I land at the airport in Sarajevo, the same thing jumps out at me when we land. The buildings there are filled with holes, silent witnesses to a war that happened fifteen years ago. You drive along the road south from Sarajevo to Mostar and you still see damage from the shelling in town after town.

But the difference between Bosnia as I know it today in 2011 and back when I first visited in 2004 is huge. While there is still a heavy police presence in places like Sarajevo, gone are the SFOR and EUFOR troops that were around every corner in 2004. There are more roadsigns, better roadsigns. And there has been rebuilding. Though the bank remains as it did then, a skeleton, the old Turkish bath house has been rebuilt, though what it is now I don't know. And 2004 itself marked an important milestone in the rebuilding when the Mostar Bridge, a bridge that stood as a symbolic link between the Croatian and Muslim sides of the river, was rebuilt. I had thought for some strange reason when it reopened that they had fished the old stones from the river and used them to rebuild the bridge when in actuality they used stones from the same quarry, but I still like to think of those stones as bathed clean by the river. Indeed, the rebuilding of the bridge reminds me of how Nehemiah organized the people to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem, restoring Jerusalem: they have revived the stones out of the heaps of rubbish--- and the burned ones at that (Nehemiah 4:2).

But in the process of rebuilding, stones are not the only things to be revived but it is people who must pick up the burned and ravaged pieces of themselves and their homes to rebuild their lives. One of the ways communities are rebuilt comes through weddings. Coming from a culture of Say Yes to the Dress and Bridezillas, seeing a wedding as rebuilding is not a natural way to see a wedding. Weddings are usually productions to entertain (though sometimes also to celebrate). But Đana and Enis' wedding was different. It was a coming together of families and the community.

Now I don't want to completely idealize this wedding. The culture is patriarchal (as ours is) and one of the places in which that plays out most is in weddings. Women move to live with their husband's families the majority of the time, and the ritual reflects that. But all in all, the focus on coming together in this wedding, traditional though it was, really overpowered those more patriarchal elements. The party starts at her house. She waits in a room, visited by neighbors and family all congratulating her, but she stays in the room until family members from his side come to bring her out of the room (where they also give money to her family) and out to the front porch of her house where they have a banquet for her family and friends. Then, she leaves with her witness and her fiancé and his witness and the rest of his family who came to get her and they begin the journey to his home, where they will have the religious and civil ceremonies followed by the reception.

And it is a long day of eating and more eating. But it was such a cool drink of water as I think about Aaron and I getting married soon. Despite the fact that Suzanne got a little snippy because she didn't eat all morning and then we didn't know who was driving us to the wedding, this day seemed more stress-free, more community oriented than ours (as portrayed in the media) are. Đana didn't have to make any food (which was good because the week leading up to the wedding was filled with people coming to visit her until almost eleven in the evening!) or decorate, friends and family chipped in. It was a real coming together, which was important to everyone since Đana is such a presence there in their village near Mostar. She will be missed so much, and she will miss them so much, though she will probably be back often.

The whole day just felt as though we were all coming together to build something. Taking pieces of ourselves and offering it forward to the community. All night Suzanne and I laughed, sitting with Đana's cousins, taking funny pictures and drinking juice and eating cheese. It might sound weird to say it, but it was a spiritual experience for me. That laughter was an indicator of how different life could be, about how even when life may be sad, joy breaks through. Always. And I guess why this metaphor from Nehemiah of reviving the stones was so important to me was because I really felt run down after a year of taking too many classes, being too far away from Aaron, and having a challenging supervised ministry assignment. This wedding felt like not only a creation of Đana and Enis's new family, but it felt like Suzanne and I were drawn in too. I already had seen all of these people as my family, but the wedding felt as much a joining of my family with theirs with the way Suzanne was welcomed as a joining of Enis and Đana's families. And I needed that.

When the wall around Jerusalem was rededicated, the book of Nehemiah tells us that, "The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away" (Nehemiah 12:43). Đana and Enis' wedding was a day in which our joy was heard far away, I think. And many people around the world, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Norway to Chicago to Maryland to South Carolina entered into that joy as well.