LeAnn Gardner: Everyday Theology: Subversive Hope

If you are anything like me, the energy and current of our world can squelch my hope in the future in a matter of seconds. I start to fear for my boys, and before I know it, I’m parenting out of fear. I’m wife-ing out of fear. I’m friend-ing out of fear. Which is not at all the person I want to be.

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There is indeed a lot to fear. What I have come to learn about myself is that I cannot let myself go down the spiral of anxiety for too long. Given my personality, sitting in that place would leave me immobilized, isolated and hopeless. It does not help anyone, including these littles I am parenting to stay in that place. I don’t want them to have a mother whose modus operandi is fear.

Nor do I want to live in denial. Because pretending or ignoring that nothing bad happens in our world is inauthentic as well. So what can we do to care for our hearts so that we are not constantly bogged down with helplessness?

First, we decide to ingest images of hope. I am a visual person. If I see something one time, it is locked away forever in my mind’s eye. Because my vocational choices have led me down paths where I heard, day after day, stories horrific of abuse and neglect, I have to be very disciplined about what I choose to hear and see.

This vocation of hearing people’s sadness has put certain things off limits for me- certain movies, books, etc I cannot read. When someone tells me of a great book they have just finished, I ask questions. “Is it graphic? Does it involve abuse of any kind?” If the answer is yes, I can’t do it. Same goes for TV. My husband knows not to even ask me to watch a Quentin Tarentino movie. It’s just not ever going to happen.

This is a conscious decision on my part. This may not be a big deal to you, but I know that for hope to have its full potential to enter my heart, I have to keep certain visuals out of my mind. This is where I’m sounding very preachy and again, everyone is different. What kind of inventory needs to be done in your mind to make room for the seed of hope?

I also believe we have to be intentional about letting the good things in as well. There is new research that says our brains are wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive. Neuroplasticity means that by simply training the brain to stop and pay 15-20 seconds of attention to small positives (a stranger’s greeting, a sweet kiss from a baby, the sweet signs of a loved one in your life, the chance to feel your lungs and legs working) can actually rewire your outlook to be more positive. Hope is intentional and subversive.

Nadia Bolz-Webber, a Lutheran pastor in Denver, talks about her tendency to become angry and hopeless- and quickly. One Sunday, right before she was to serve the Eucharist to her congregation, someone said something to her that elevated her cortisol levels rapidly and high. She spotted infant twins in the congregation and instinctively asked the parents if she could hold one of the babies. That day, she served the Eucharist with a baby in one hand and the elements in another. She knew that she had to replace her anger with good energy- the energy of an innocent baby- to get through the service and to offer her congregants the elements.

Now not all of us have access to babies when our stress elevates, but the point is it could be helpful to have a strategy to mitigate the stress and fear that enters our brains and hearts at a rapid pace. As we continue being bombarded by election coverage, perhaps we can be on the journey to exploring a good balance of being informed, but not overcome by this election season, knowing that our ultimate hope does not rest in a candidate, but in a Savior.

We surround ourselves with hope bearers. Being in a community of faith makes this one easy for many of us. In my community of faith, we hope together, as a body of Christ, as we gather school supplies for kids who are in a difficult place. We work alongside Metanoia, a holistic community development non-profit, to make lasting community change. And on a micro level, we surround ourselves with intimates who don’t have their heads in the sand, but who believe alongside us, that love wins every single time, even if at that particular time it doesn’t feel like it.

I’m not talking about Pollyanna faith here-I’m not talking about someone who says to a person in deep grief: God wanted one more angel in heaven. NO. I’m talking about the people, who in deep vulnerability, walk alongside the wounded as they grieve, recognizing that pain, death, poverty and suffering are realities.

But even beyond pain, I believe that a church community are witnesses to the wholeness of our lives- even the seemingly mundane part of our lives. We not only celebrate the big things: baptisms, weddings, graduations, births, but we show up and bear witness to new jobs, beginnings of school years, lost teeth, basketball games and new homes. We bear witness to one another’s lives.

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We roll up our sleeves and become agents of hope ourselves. What if, instead of allowing our fear to immobilize us or make us angry, we meet fear in the face and defiantly say, “I’ll show you!” And what we show is service. When we fear, we serve. When we have anxiety, we serve. When someone moves, we help them pack. When someone has a baby, we take them food. When youth go to camp, we go as a chaperone. When the church needs locking up, we stay late and lock up. When the children need teachers, we teach. When the tables need moved, we move them. When the Spirit lays someone on our heart, we call them.

My rolling up of sleeves service will look different than your roll up your sleeves service because we are different in our giftings and callings. The point is, as we wait, as we long for the suffering of the world to end, we serve. And we celebrate the good that is already happening in our midst. God knows no one is glad that the Charleston shooting of nine innocent souls happened, nor the trauma of the survivors. But the hope that peeks through in tragedy is God’s business and we have seen the Gospel on display many times throughout the aftermath of that unspeakable tragedy.

Every night as I lie in bed with my four year old or as I rock my two year old, I sing a hymn. It is my quotidian act of subversion; to sing this song of hope into their ears. Hear these words:

“Go my children with my blessing, you are my own. Waking, sleeping, I am with you, never alone. In my love’s baptismal river, I have made you mine forever, go my children with my blessing, never alone.”

We are not alone. We belong to God, the one who gives us our hope. We are loved. We love. And we speak truth to the hope that propels us. Love wins….every single time. Amen.

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LeAnn Gardner is a right brained social worker and minister married to a left brained engineer. Together they (sometimes) compose a full brain. She is mother to two boys, ages 4 and 2 years.

 

Hannah Coe: Everyday Theology: Compassion as a Catalyst

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July 7, 2016. I dropped both girls at school. The NPR show On Point came on the radio as I left my last school drop-off. On Point is a show hosted by Tom Ashbrook that looks into pressing issues of the time and is conversational in style (panel discussion, call-ins, etc.). Since I’m usually running late (does anyone else feel like they’ve survived WWIII after they drop off the last child?), I hear the first 30 minutes or so of On Point.

The topic of the day was originally to be on the shooting death of Alton Sterling on July 6, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But the shooting of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota on the night of July 6 was added to the On Point discussion. As the show’s host and panel guests for the day reviewed and discussed the video footage of the shooting of Alton Sterling and the moments after the shooting of Philando Castile, it was as if these shootings happened before their very eyes. Even as the host and panel discussed the day’s questions, breaking news rolled in. Disbelief and horror rang in their voices. They could not believe what they were seeing and hearing.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I drove to the wrong place. Scheduled to do weekly hospital visits, I drove to the church and realized, only after parking my car, I wasn’t where I meant to be.

Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, narrated for the world the moments after her boyfriend was fatally shot. Her voice was calm and direct. She became upset once in the back of a police car. In the background, we can hear the voice of her four year old daughter say, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.”

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you…

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you…

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you….

The words ring in my heart. They ring, and they do not stop ringing.

They are beautiful because they are words of compassion, mercy, and empathy. They are words I hope this four-year-old little girl has heard over and over and over again from someone who loves her very much, hearing them so often, they came out of her mouth when she saw her mother in pain. Because that’s what you do when someone is in pain. You show compassion, mercy, and empathy. These are Christ’s words, are they not? We can hear them coming from his heart, because Christ, our Companion, is here with us, here with that little girl, here with Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds.

It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you…

The words ring in my heart and they change me. I’m not good with chemistry, but compassion is a catalyst, is it not? Compassion urges, encourages, and births impossible transformation. The words tell me that things must change. And I must be a part of the change. I have known this for a long time.

But on July 7, 2016, compassion urged my imagination to see my black, male friends dying in the front seat of that car. Friends, colleagues, brothers who prayed for me at my ordination, sat next to me in seminary class, walked me to my car after class because it was dark, and joked with me on Facebook about the hilarity of life with young children.

Compassion urged my imagination to put myself in the passenger seat, my worst fears coming to fruition–fearing for my life, fearing for my future, fearing for my child, damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Compassion urged my imagination to see my four year old daughter in the back seat of that car. Compassion tells me things must change. Friends, they must change.

I must do compassion and mercy and empathy. I must do the ministry of reconciliation. Just when I feel like it doesn’t matter anymore, I must remember that it really does matter.

It really does matter.

I am praying each day about how God calls me to be a part of change in my community, in my country, in the world. I am praying each day about how to use the privileges I’m afforded to work for justice and for reconciliation. I am praying each day about how I am called to share compassion, mercy, and empathy. I am praying, praying, praying.

I am going to town hall meetings, forums, and other places where I can listen and learn and (somehow) join my voice to build bridges and build hope. I am dreaming up curriculum and planning conversations with children’s ministry leaders in our church in hopes that we can be intentional about teaching the explicit commands of Christ to love our neighbors. I want us to be honest and real about the problems of this world (because children know about them anyway) and to be direct in our conversations about race, class, ethnicity, and the love of Jesus which transcends all those boundaries (cause, yeah, children really believe that, they just need to know adults do, too).

Today I need to tell you that it really does matter. I need to tell you that it really does matter because I need to hear it. I want to tell you because maybe you need to hear it too. Wherever you are on your journey of motherhood and ministry, right now, today, what you are doing matters. Every word. Every hug. Every act of service. Every gracious response. Every explanation of “Katherine, how would it make you feel if Annalina took that toy from you? Sad? Maybe we can find a different way to share toys.” With every act of compassion, mercy, and empathy, the ground becomes more fertile, the seeds are spread, and God’s Dream grows a little more.

I must teach it to my children by telling, doing, and sharing it with them. I must tell it to them over and over and over again, believing that it will come out of their mouths and the very living of their lives. This four year old girl is changing me with her words of compassion. That could have been my little girl in my back seat

Another layer to this story is that I’d selected Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to preach on the coming Sunday and had spent significant time meditating on the word “mercy” as used by the lawyer to describe the one who was a neighbor. That Thursday morning I had nearly settled on what one scholar calls a Christological reading of the text. A reading in which we picture Christ as the man lying half-dead on the side of the road, in need of mercy. A reading in which the lawyer, and we, are able to see ourselves as the man lying half-dead on the side of the road, in need of mercy. This reading of the text speaks to the world’s deep and desperate need for compassion, mercy, and empathy. This reading of the text gives us eyes to see one another for who we really are: human, which is to be created and loved by God.

There is no ribbon to neatly bind this reflection. No color-coded arrangement that will organize or make sense of the injustice before our eyes. It is what it is. Ugly. Unjust. Unceasing.

The traditions of our faith tell us more than once that we must see the world with double-vision. As it is and as it must be. I’ll admit that seeing the world with double-vision leaves me feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach. Though discouraged, the calling is ever-stronger. Practice compassion. Follow the way of mercy. Work for justice in a spirit of love.

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A Georgia native and graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, Hannah Coe serves as Associate Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Hannah and her husband, David, are parents to Katherine and Annalina. They enjoy playing, eating, and the occasional nap.

Chansin Esparza: Breastfeeding and Spiritual Gifts

“He’s so big!”
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        It’s the constant refrain of my life. Every time I go to worship, the grocery store, a friend’s house – wherever – that’s what people exclaim about my five-month-old baby.  Ever since his two-month pediatrician appointment, my baby has been off-the-charts tall.
 
      Or …. long. He is off-the-charts long. Babies are long – not tall – because they cannot stand up. It’s been a little awkward as my pediatrician, on multiple visits, has asked me to consider donating breastmilk to the milk bank because he assumes that with such a fast-growing baby, I must have extra-good milk. 
       I blame the baby, not my milk. He had a huge appetite, right from the start! In the early weeks, it felt like the only thing I ever did was breastfeed him. Maybe most babies are big eaters like him. But my husband warns me that if our son is anything like he was, then when our boy hits the teen years it will again feel like all I ever do is feed him. 
      Now that my baby is no longer a newborn, the experience of breastfeeding is more efficient and less painful (thank God!). Since he’s not feeding all the time, I let my mind go to other things once in a while. I occasionally forget about his reoccurring hunger.
      So sometimes he gets fussy, and not really thinking about why, I take him up to change his diaper. Maybe this will help, I think.
       But then as I set him on the changing table and place my arms near his body, he leans his little head up … and tries to bite my arm! He’s rooting on whatever part of my body he can get his mouth close to. I’m hungry! he’s telling me. With his open mouth and fierce eyes, I remember. Oh yeah … you need to eat, little one! And I laugh because he’s desperately grabbing at my arm and trying to put his cute mouth on it. 
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      If I’m being cynical, it can seem like the baby just wants to use me. I’m a means to an end: his full tummy. But it dawned on me that the milk that he is trying to get access to … is not really mine. It’s his. God put that milk inside me for his sake. I don’t need it. It’s a gift from God given to my baby through me. I’m the conduit for delivering the nourishment. 
And that makes me think of the Church. 
      All of us have gifts that God put inside us for the sake of others. We are conduits for delivering what is needed to the people God has brought into our lives. We have gifts of our time and attention and love and resources. And we have spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual gifts is to build up the Church. God gave them to us for the sole purpose of doing good in the world. They’re useless if we keep it to ourselves, just like I’d have no use for breastmilk if it wasn’t for my baby. 
      I currently serve a church of people who have a variety of gifts and use them for the sake of others. For example, we have a creative arts camp that we put on for kids at a nearby housing project. In order to bring the love of Jesus to those kids through a fun, safe, organized, and effective camp experience, it takes all kinds of gifted people. A few of them are…
  • The gift of Administration – Martha patiently registered the children who didn’t know how to spell and parents who knew little English.
  • The gift of Evangelist – Jason walked around the apartments, looking for kids and encouraging them to come to the camp. 
  • The gift of Leadership – Pam planned the activities and coordinated volunteers, calling the shots as the day went on.
  • The gift of Serving – Vanessa poured drinks and helped the kids with their crafts. 
  • The gift of Encouragement – Jan spoke positive words to the kids about their artistic abilities and encouragement to the adults for their interactions with the kids. 
  • The gift of Mercy – Lauren remembered the names and stories of the kids from the housing project whose needs are hard to comprehend.
  • The gift of Giving – Stephanie brought supplies and offered her church shirt to me when she learned I didn’t have one.
  • The gift of Teaching – Sarajane taught the children dance moves and instructed them through the bubbles and piñata activities. 
  • The gift of Faith – Val believed in the entire process and expected God to make it successful, even before we began. 
      In Christ, we are one body. The parts of a body need the other parts in order to survive. Just like my baby gets hungry and looks to me for what he needs, we in the Church are at a loss and in need of the gifts that are in our Christian brothers and sisters. 
      God made you the way you are – not just for your sake, but for the sake of others. How are you giving away your gifts to those who are meant to receive them? 
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Chansin Esparza is an Associate Pastor at Life In The City in Austin, Texas. Her husband, Jason, serves the church as well. Their son was born in January 2016. She blogs at ChansinEsparza.com.

Leah Grundset Davis: Everyday Theology: Everywhere

An article makes its way around social media every year during summer. It details the differences between a vacation and a trip when you’re traveling with young children. It was so true that I laughed heartily as I read it the first time.

With the knowledge that our beach “vacation” was actually a trip (save for the two days Grammy joined us and my husband and I actually ate some full meals sitting down), my husband and two daughters packed our bags and traveled to Hilton Head, S.C., for a week.

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We were expecting to take a little break from our daily routines, as anyone hopes to, on our trip. And the news in our world had been heavy. We’d just walked through the first days of grief from the shooting in Orlando and great loss of life in Istanbul and Baghdad. One afternoon while the girls were napping, exhausted from their morning of beach play, I came across this poem by Warsan Shire:

“later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

Ran my fingers across the whole world

And whispered

Where does it hurt?

 

It answered

Everywhere

Everywhere

Everywhere.

This poem rang through my head. It’s so true. There was and is a great grief hanging over our world. There is this deep sadness and pain throughout our world.

And we feel it. Sometimes it is ours directly and sometimes indirectly. But when we are paying attention, we feel it. And it can feel hopeless. Even when we know and believe in hope.

We all went out to dinner our last night at the beach. Waiting outside to enter the restaurant, my soon to be three-year-old, a preacher’s kid through and through, was playing with Bible trivia cards. She promptly walked up to a woman and showed them to her. It turns out, my daughter had naturally gravitated to another minister who was excited to play the game with her. (My daughter’s version of game is naming the characters on the nativity scene on the front and paying no mind to the trivia questions).

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As she and her new friend played the game, the sky opened and it started pouring. Her new friend said to her as we all went to our tables, “Lydia, remember you are loved by God.” Lydia said, “so are you!” We smiled and parted ways.

The rain poured as we ate our seafood. When we came out, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and a beautiful rainbow stretched over the water of the inlet. Lydia was overjoyed to see her first rainbow in person.

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She jumped up and down and loudly proclaimed, “Mommy, that’s my first rainbow I see. That means God loves everyone, everywhere! God loves the whole world!”

At the end of our trip, that was the hope-filled benediction I needed to hear. Some words of healing from the mouth of an almost three-year-old—that especially in the places where it hurts, the love of God is there too.

We return again and again to our calling to be the people of God who hope and love in ways that seem impossible. But we do it. And we work for justice and for peace. We must.

Indeed, God loves everyone.

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Rev. Leah Grundset Davis is the communications specialist for the Alliance of Baptists. She lives in Bristow, Va., with her husband John, daughters Lydia and Sadie Pearl and dog, Moses.

Melanie Storie: Everyday Theology: When the Everyday Is Interrupted

An ordinary day for me begins with a certain organized chaos. My boys are twelve and fourteen, athletic and smart, so someone will have a sporting event or practice of some kind, a project due. My husband is a pastor and he will likely have meeting or event of some kind, so we discuss who is getting which child to where. Meanwhile, coffee is being poured, showers are starting, dogs are fed, lunches are made, kids prepare for school. Matt and I get ready for work and it’s busy and crazy and good.

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This is our everyday. Until one day it wasn’t.

On an ordinary morning in May, Matt sat in his chair, sipping his coffee while I got the boys up. Things were running like clockwork when Matt made a motion for me to turn around. I thought he was being flirty, like when I wear a new dress and he wants me to spin, but I was in pajamas and my hair was sticking up.

“Are you kidding?” I asked him.

He spoke, but his words didn’t sound like words at all. His speech was slurred and garbled. His mouth looked odd, as if it belonged on another person’s face.

“Are you kidding?” I asked again. I wished he was. I knew he wasn’t.

He made another motion with his hand, not for me to twirl, but that he wanted to write something down.

It’s amazing to me how many thoughts can go through a mind in a moment. I registered that my youngest son, Owen was bearing witness to this terrible event and I simultaneously wanted to shield him from it and to get him to help me stop it. I shouted for Owen to get a pen after I picked up a colored pencil that was completely devoid of lead.

Why do we never have pens when we need them? Getting a writing utensil seemed so vital. It was something I could control. What if this is the way he talks now? Stroke. The word throbbed through the moment.

With pen in hand, Matt wrote, “Dizzy.” He said, “Dizzy.” The spell was broken. He was back. He said, “Take me to the hospital.”

Here’s the thing; the entire event from when he made the first hand gesture to the word “dizzy” lasted approximately one minute. That minute is seared in slow motion on my mind. The rest of the day moved rapidly.

Aidan walked Matt to the car while Matt gave our wide-eyed sons instructions about getting on the school bus when it came and proceeding with the day as normal. The moment he was out of ear shot, I told the boys that they were to ignore everything their father had just said. Stay home. Watch TV. Keep your cell phones close.

Gracious, there was nothing normal left to salvage out of the day and it was only 6:30am.

On the way to the ER, my pastor husband who had faithfully visited the sick and hurting instructed me on the best route, the best place to park, and then said he was used to visiting others, not being a patient himself. Since that moment, it has felt like we have entered an alternate universe.

Matt’s been a runner since high school. When my brother called me about “the episode” (as we call it now) he said, “How has this happened to the healthiest member of the family?” The best answer I have at this point is, I don’t know.

He has been scanned, tested, prodded. He is currently wearing a 30-day heart monitor as the neurologist wants to take a closer look at his heart. So far, though, everything looks good.

We have questions. Was it a stroke? A seizure? Apparently it could’ve been a migraine without the headache. And we worry that it might happen again.

When I worry, I think of leaving the ER that day. Several church members were in the hospital lobby and because we were living in that alternate universe, I thought they must’ve been there to visit someone else. It took me a moment to realize they were there to see us. One woman prayed with us. Another said she came because she could sit with me if I needed her. Another said, “Of course we would be here for Matt, he would be here for any of us.”

Living in our alternate universe has made our ordinary lives seem so much sweeter. We have drawn closer together as a family and have seen our boys act with the maturity of young men in doing more around the house with little complaining to make life easier on their father.

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The small stuff seems a lot smaller. We’ve learned to let people minister to us now and then. In each of these moments, even in the longest moment of all, God was near.

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Melanie Storie is an ordained minister, pastor’s wife and mother of two who lives in Shelby, North Carolina and works as a tutor in a local elementary school. She enjoys writing and has high hopes of publishing her first novel about an Appalachian woman who can “talk the fire out.”

Christie Goodman: Everyday Theology: Like a Mother Wren

There are several milestones in a child’s life that parents celebrate: sleeping through the night, taking those first steps, going to the restroom on their own, making their own breakfast, first day of school, and so on. My husband and I had one of those events this month when our youngest daughter turned 13 – sigh, a teenager.

Not much has changed really, but such events cause us to press the pause button for a bit. Thirteen years ago, she would spend her first 46 days in a hospital NICU. Like her sister two years earlier, she was born nine weeks premature. Weighing under 3 pounds, she was surrounded by big machines and tangled wires. We turned her over with our fingertips.

But I can see now how her personality was already forming. Both of my daughters had to go without feeding for a few days while in the NICU due to some internal bleeding. My first daughter cried hungrily but strategically, only when a nurse was close enough to hear. My second though, took it in stride. No fuss. No stress.

With the pause button still pressed, I remember some of the things going on around us at the time. Just weeks before her birth, a family of barn swallows constructed a nest right above our front door. Every day, I would take a peek at how the family was doing. Once hatched, the baby birds clamored loudly whenever a parent hovered mere inches away with food. They were silent the rest of the time. And when we stepped out onto the porch, one or both parents would swoop down at us doing everything they could to protect their brood and keep us away.

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Somehow, I felt a connection – however small – to this little family. Their infants were fully dependent. And the parents were remarkably protective. When we finally were able to bring home our littlest one, still hooked to on a monitor, we were super-protective too. Other than doctor visits, we didn’t take her out of the house until she was several months old. We made visitors wash their hands before they could even look at her. The same had been true with her sister. And the same was true with our friends with newborns, especially those with preemies, even as our children grew.

Fast-forward 13 years. As we prepared to celebrate my latest teenager’s birthday, and for just the second time in my own life, we have a new bird’s nest outside our door. From what we can tell, this is a family of Carolina Wrens. We know something these parents don’t. Two months ago, that flower pot was a hideout for a snake. Last month, some large rodent was hanging out there. Now, it is home to these delicate babies. So we have been watching them in earnest.

We’ve noticed that the parents’ protectiveness looks different than the swallows’. The food deliveries do not lead to loud frantic squeaking. And the parents don’t try to frighten visitors. Oftentimes, when we peer into the nest, we only see the babies. No doubt a parent is nearby, watching, but not imposing, ready to guide their little ones to eat and eventually to take flight once the coast is clear.

New research came out last week revealing that, compared to mammals, bird brains have many more neurons per square inch. This helps explain why they have such complex cognitive abilities in their tiny brains. Various species of birds can store food, make tools, understand cause-and-effect and even plan for the future. So maybe these guys on my porch aren’t as helpless as they appear. I know my 13-year-old isn’t.

I’m learning that the wren’s style of protection is like the role of parents of teenagers. Nearby. Watching. Not imposing. Our babies are no longer completely dependent. Our job is to let them try out their new wings even when they stumble. It is in fact the stumbling that reaps learning and confidence to take the next step.

Perhaps this is what “free will” really means. Maybe it is not just about having the space to believe or not believe, to follow or not follow. Rather, we have ample room to reach, falter, learn and get back up again, stronger. In this space, we are most able to grow to become who he has created us to be – something I have to remember when my teens begin to fluff their own wings.

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Christie is manages communication for the Intercultural Development Research Association. With two daughters, she and husband Paul are active with Girl Scouts, March of Dimes and Woodland Baptist Church. https://www.facebook.com/christie.goodman.apr

Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly: Everyday Theology in the News

Before I became a parent, I used to be the brunt of many jokes about parenthood. The jokes were justified. Though I devoured The Baby-Sitter’s Club books as a preteen, I never really did much babysitting in real life. It turns out babysitting was not as picturesque as it seemed in the books.

By the time I was a college student, most of my girlfriends were gaga over babies and kids. I, on the other hand, held them at arm’s length, having no idea how to do any sort of mothering activities. And heaven forbid there be a group of children all together. I was like a deer in headlights with too many kids around.

When I became a priest, I was terrified I would have to do children’s ministries. I did not know how to talk to kids, and I certainly did not know how to explain complicated theological concepts to children. I almost cried the week when I prepared my first “child friendly” sermon as an associate.

Becoming a parent meant I quickly got over the physical stuff with children. In fact, I have become much more like my college friends, dying to hold little babies. But what never did come naturally was learning how to talk to children in an accessible way about God. I know this to be true from the many times my six-year old’s eyes have glazed over as I tried to explain something about church or God.Jennifer and Simone.jpg

This handicap has become especially challenging these last couple of weeks. For some reason, my oldest daughter has become fascinated with the news. Whether on TV, looking at pictures in the paper, or listening to snippets of NPR before she makes me change the channel to music, my daughter has started paying attention – and paying attention has meant that questions have started coming.

Last week, the questions were about what a boy from Stanford did to hurt a girl. I struggled to know how graphic to be with a six-year old about sexual assault, consent, and our bodies. Part of the challenge is that my daughter’s questions are usually pretty basic: “Why is he in trouble? Why are people mad?”

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I try very hard to give her basic responses, but how do you not talk about the objectification of women, the bias of our justice system against sexual assault victims, the difference between healthy, responsible sexual activity and rape, and white, male privilege?

This week, the news is haunting me again. The questions were again basic: “Why are they talking about people dying? Why did he kill all those people?” Which topic do I try to tackle: gun violence, homophobia, or cultural differences? She knows that women can marry women and men can marry men, but I am not sure we have used labeling words like gay, lesbian, or transgender. We have talked about Mommy’s aversion to guns, but she does not understand how people procure and use assault weapons.

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And I certainly have no idea how to bring God into all of this. Luckily, she seems to get caught up in the details of the news instead of waxing philosophical with me. But someday she will. And I do not know how I will delicately explain my sense of who God is versus who others say God is.

Though they were not related by blood, Naomi and Ruth were mother and daughter by choice. In a defining moment in their relationship, Ruth declares, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1.16).

Naomi’s job from there on out is to teach Ruth the ways of her people and her God. There will be no escaping Ruth’s presence. So Naomi better start teaching and talking to Ruth.

I remember when my daughter was three or four, I used to immediately skip the news channels when looking for something on PBS or Disney. Now, my daughter wants to watch the news. I suppose her desire to watch, listen, and read is a gift to me – a chance for me teach her about the evils of this world and how God is an agent of love and light despite darkness. That is what I tell the adults in my life every day.

Now I have to figure out how to tell that same story so that a six-year-old, a twelve-year-old, a sixteen-year-old, and a ninety-year-old alike can understand. I will likely fumble my way through. I suppose it is a good thing that God has always worked through me in spite of me.

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Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly is a minister and mother of two living in Williamsburg, Virginia with her husband, Scott. In her free time, she enjoys watching movies and having dance parties in the kitchen.

Photo credits:

http://www.abc.net.au/rampup/articles/2013/11/06/3885317.htm

http://www.wcyb.com/news/money/why-ashleigh-banfield-read-stanford-rape-victims-letter-on-cnn/39925028

Ashley Mangrum: Everyday Theology: Turning People into Humans

I have avoided introducing my children to superheroes for as long as possible. I walk past the superhero aisle at Target, and when asked about the action figure wearing red with a spider on his shirt, I say, “That is Spiderman. He can make spiderwebs with his hands.” I always redirect the conversation because, to be honest, I don’t know how to talk about superheroes with my two and four-year-olds.

Superheroes use weapons to fight the “bad guy” (or in some cases another superhero, further complicating the matter and scraping the bottom of the superhero barrel). The enemy is always defeated by physical force and is often injured or killed in the process. I find it difficult to explain how fighting, injuring, or killing another person (or at least another weird, red, mutated being) is justified only because it’s the “good guy” doing the fighting, injuring, or killing.

Maybe it is just me, but four seems a little young for a discussion about Just War Theory.

When children play superheroes, they no longer pretend to save someone from a fire, for example. They pretend to fight each other–the sad and inevitable outcome of a radically desensitized culture obsessed with violence and victory at all costs. In superhero world, violence is required to bring peace and make the world a better, safer place. I don’t think this view of the world is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

However, it would seem that my avoidance of superheroes has come to an end. My son has picked up on their existence. We do not live in a hole, so it was bound to happen sooner or later. My son loves to write stories (well, he likes to tell a story and have it written down by someone who can actually write), and one of his most recent stories was about superheroes:

Once upon a time, there was a school bus and a highchair. More than anything else in the world they wanted to be humans. And Batman comes and turns them into humans. Then Batman sees some bad guys coming. Oh wait, this is Spiderman. And Spiderman uses his spider webs to catch the bad guys. A chair and a tree come and they want to be humans, too. Batman turns them into humans because Batman is there and Spiderman is there, and they both have powers to turn people into humans. Then they all go back home. The end.

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It seems all my family’s talk of peacemaking has muddied the superhero waters. According to the imagination of my four-year-old, superheroes turn people into humans. This may seem like mere semantics, but I think he is onto something.

In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.” To be fully human in this sense is to be the person God has created and called you to be, and by living into our true identity, we serve God. To be fully human is not only to recognize one’s own humanity but, perhaps more importantly, to recognize the humanity of others and to value it.

It requires us to acknowledge that each human being comes with a story and a context, hopes and dreams, hurts and disappointments–even the ones we do not like and want to vanquish with superhero strength. Superheroes help us see each other not as mere people but as humans called and created by God. We each have the power to turn people into humans.

I foresee many, many more conversations about superheroes in my future. And I will tell my children that anyone and everyone can be a superhero. Anyone can make the world a better, safer place simply by choosing to love others. Real superheroes use words and not weapons. I will teach them to use their brain and not their brawn to work for what is right.

Real superheroes make peace, not war. They fearlessly live into their humanity as creatures of God. And they help others to do the same.

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Ashley Mangrum is a minister and mother of two living in Davidson, North Carolina with her husband, Ben. In her free time, Ashley is an aspiring artist and cupcake connoisseur.

 

 

 

Griselda Escobar: Everyday Theology and the Ordinary Task

She says she does not know when it began. She cannot pinpoint what caused it. She could not recall the first time she realized it. All she knows for sure is where she is now.

Life has become overwhelming.

The work that once filled her heart with passion became difficult to fulfill. Preparing lunches, making schedules, and following those schedules somehow transformed into too much. Times of enjoying the moment and the family she loves felt scarce. Her child’s laughter –which makes her smile as she thinks of it–could not change the feeling. The continual support of a loving husband were not lifting the weight.

What happened? she asked. How did I get here?

As time went by she has tried different approaches and sought for answers to help her deal with her feelings. She has kept praying. But at times she continues to doubt herself, her feelings, her faith.

Her God has not changed though. And she has become amazed at how God continues to mold her faith . . . in the everyday ways.

In 2nd Kings 5 we find the story of Naaman,  a powerful military leader in a vulnerable place. He was not accustomed to being out of control. In fact, he was always in control.

Here Naaman finds himself in an uncommon situation, a situation completely out of his control: he has contracted leprosy. He is in desperate need of healing. His wife’s servant girl refers him to the God of Israel.

Out of resources, out of control, he goes. He starts at the palace with the king, but leaves empty handed. He’s then referred to the prophet Elisha, who doesn’t even go out to speak to him in person, but sends a servant to relay the message.

Elisha tells Naaman to do an ordinary task in an ordinary place. He is not sent to a special location renowned for its healing miracles. No one promises him an extraordinary experience.

Instead God simply told him, through Elisha, to go and bathe himself seven times in the Jordan.

Naaman goes away angry. He is thoroughly unimpressed with the prophet of Israel. “’I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.”

What kind of healing involves just ordinary basic hygiene?! Where was the drama? Where was the flair? Had his servants not intervened and convinced him to try these simple instructions, Naaman may never have been healed.

But God picked an ordinary way to heal him. Here in this ordinary place, doing an ordinary task, in the presence of only his companions, God brought a miracle. Naaman’s healing reflects the sacredness of the ordinary in the hands of an extraordinary God.

Mental illness can be a hard thing to talk about. It is often not discussed, especially by those dealing with it, because it carries a different stigma than being diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension. So it stays hidden in the shadows far too often, with sufferers cut off from resources and people who might help them. In the church especially, our silence and judgment has damaged those who most need us.

The stigma around mental illness might be similar to the stigma that accompanied leprosy in biblical times. Leprosy was viewed as a punishment for personal sin. Today, in many faith communities, depression or other mental illnesses are viewed as a result of a lack of prayer or faith or even because of a “bad spirit.”We turn away from what we don’t understand.

The embedded theology in this stigma around mental illness says that those who struggle with mental illness or love someone who does are being punished by God–or at least forgotten, cast aside, like damaged goods. It says that we are to blame for the illness we are experiencing and our ongoing struggle only testifies to our lack of being “right with God.” If we really loved God (or God really loved us), we wouldn’t be wrestling with this illness.

Unraveling the embedded theology around the stigma associated with mental illness unmasks it as completely false. We do not worship the One who hands out illness, whether  heart disease or depression, cancer or bipolar disorder, as punishment. We worship the One who is near to the broken hearted, who reached out to those everyone else had shunned, who brought healing to people who suffered from all kinds of illnesses. The more we expose the lie of the stigma, the more we shed light on the truth of God’s love and grace.

Today the woman at the beginning of this story is receiving the help that she needs and joy has begun to seep back into her life, especially in the gratitude of ordinary tasks. She has begun to enjoy family game night and movie night. Her laundry room has become holy ground; the act of washing dishes has become a sacred act.

Her home is the holy of holies and she has grown grateful for this process and the family who will experience her healing as witnesses of God’s power. The ordinary tasks of daily life have become a reflection of a loving God. There is no ordinary work, task, or place with an extraordinary God.

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Griselda Escobar is an ordained minister living in Corpus Christi with her husband and son. An experienced chaplain, she enjoys serving God in different church opportunities through preaching and working with women and children.

Joanne Costantino: Everyday Love and Tenderness

“Let all you do be done in love.” I Corinthians 16:14

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As I sat with my Mother-in-law in the Cardiac Cath lab for a ‘versioning,’ waiting for her turn to be prepped for the procedure, I felt my cell phone vibrate. It was my father-in –law. I answered assuming he was just checking on his wife of 60 years.

“Joanne, this is Pops. I’m lost. I don’t know how to get back home.”

`I said to Mom, “I’ll be right back,” and exited to the hallway.

He could clearly identify where he was. I tried to talk him through getting his bearings, but the more we discussed, the more confused he became. I had left an already anxious woman alone while she waited her turn to have electricity zapped to her heart to regulate rhythm. So after instructing him to stay put I called my husband Mike and put him to the task of getting his Dad safely home.

Mom asked what Pops wanted and I somewhat lied, saying I didn’t have the answer he was looking for and had told Mike to call him. But it was obvious she suspected there was more to the phone call.

Once we were through with the medical procedures and well rested at home, we asked if there were other episodes where Dad got ‘lost.’ Mom acknowledged there had been a few, but that lately it seemed to be happening more frequently.

That was over three years ago. After medical testing and evaluations the suspicions were confirmed. Dad has moderate dementia.

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My own grandmother slowly deteriorated with dementia. I remember that her ‘episodes’ affected my mother mostly through hurt feelings. But it was my father who truly suffered the heartbreak of seeing his own Mom become a stranger. She often relived years he could not know, those first twenty years of her life in rural Ireland, sometimes speaking in Gaelic as if we should understand what she was saying.

That is where we are with Pops.

Physically, at 84 years of age, he’s still pretty much a bear of a man who did manual labor most of his life. Mentally, his mind has betrayed what he and his wife had counted on as the “Golden Years.” He has always been loving but ornery. Lately he’s been ornery more often than not.

If you were to ask Mom how things are going, she will shrug her tiny shoulders and say, “Hangin’ in there. Doin’ the best I can.” And that would be the extent of the conversation.

She won’t tell you about his midnight jaunts when he leaves the house to go to one of his ‘side jobs.’ He often worked two and three jobs at a time while Mom took care of their five children.

She won’t detail for you how he claims someone, somehow was in their house and stole a very specific amount of money from his wallet, when in reality he simply hid it and forgot where. She also won’t tell you that the huge hole in the ceiling is because he tried to fix something and eventually decided the fix wasn’t needed after all. She won’t tell you how sad she is to see him do these strange and uncharacteristic things.

This is not her Frank.

We have tried to convince Mom and Dad to consider alternative living arrangements, considering their safety and well-being. But Dad won’t budge. I understand. He knows his own home and in that, there is his personal sense of security.

When I’m with him and realize he’s ‘gone off’ into another time and place, talking about what he did and who he was with and the conversation that happened as if it were present time, I just ‘go with it,’ hanging on to every word he shares. For me, he’s giving me a glimpse in to his past, like a family history lesson.

My siblings-in-law have a different perspective than I do with this inevitable progression of dementia. I understand that, too. They are missing their Daddy, the bear of man who hugged you and then kissed both of your cheeks, with a “Mmmmm. Love ya!”

They are missing the everyday things that defined their Daddy. They miss his velvet voice singing Italian lullabies and Frank Sinatra love songs, him strumming his ukulele while sipping his homemade red wine in the kitchen. They miss the pet names he had for them, like, Rags or Moose or Murph. Because he doesn’t remember.

Most of my understanding is with Mom.

My sainted mother-in-law is torn between preserving her husband’s dignity and the emotional exhaustion of his episodes, which sometimes relive a time she’d rather not. This is not the same man who pursued her in their dating days . . .  and yet he is, during tiny moments here and there.

Maybe those moments sustain her to make every day as ordinary as possible for both of them. She does this with extraordinary strength and grace, love and tenderness. She is his wife and she loves him.

As I watch her care for him, I hear a whisper that love is bigger than shared memories. That even when we forget who we are or lose our way, we are yet loved and valued. That even when, piece by piece, we are losing who we have been, we are still precious to the ones who love us. And to the One who loved us before we knew who we were and loves us through and beyond the day we might forget altogether.

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Joanne and one of her five grandchildren, Mikey

Joanne Costantino is a Philly girl and “cafeteria Catholic” laywoman living in the wild suburbs of South Jersey, where she still pines for city life. She graduated from college in 2008, two weeks shy of the birth of her 4th grandchild and now there are five grands. The “accidental matriarch” of a life she didn’t sign up for, Joanne chronicles that life at www.weneedmoresundaydinners.blogspot.com. We do indeed need more Sunday dinners.