Thursday, October 27, 2011
My first day of class at William Jewell College in 1996, the professor announced that Moses and that whole 10 Commandments business never actually happened, and then assigned us to read 60 pages in a three-ring binder-of-all-binders textbook that he and another religion professor were writing together. My professor smiled, laughed and sent us on our way.
And that pretty much sums up my Jewell experience.
I was shocked at what I didn’t know about the Bible (or rather, what I had spent years asking the church about, but never received any answers for).
I was shocked when I met students from small towns and conservative backgrounds here at Jewell who thought that women couldn’t do the same thing as men, that women didn’t belong in church leadership.
I was shocked that I couldn’t have a good Christian boy in my dorm room past 10pm on weeknights, and I was shocked when that same good Christian boy (and many others after him) sent all my romantic ideals sprawling after breaking my heart.
But I was kind of naïve back then. Perhaps I still am.
I started calling God “She” at some point during my junior year at Jewell I think. I did it mostly to prove a point to my male classmates, to make them feel as estranged by the gospel as I sometimes felt. And sometimes when I would read whole passages of scripture out loud, I substituted all the “he’s” with “she’s,” but mostly that was just to drive my point home. If Jesus could be hyperbolic (remember that whole if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off story?) then so could I.
Once I got to seminary I actually got called out once by a professor for some over the top feminist comment I wrote in one of my papers. “I think you’re citing this source just to be dramatic,” he wrote in the margin. Perhaps I thought, as I flipped through my paper, noting that he gave me an “A” anyway.
I was kind of dogmatic back then. Perhaps I still am.
The world we live in is a startling place. If one thing isn’t surprising you, it’s surprising someone else. And what seems status quo to someone else is shocking the socks off you. Cause we’re all at different places on our journey and the curious part about journey is we don’t even end up at the same destination. My grandfather was baptized by immersion in my parents’ Baptist church when he was 89 years old despite the fact that he grew up in the Methodist church and continued to attend the Methodist church after his Baptist baptism. My second cousin is a UU (pronounced youyou), a Unitarian Universalist despite the fact that for years she taught on a religion faculty and called herself a Christian. A woman I went to seminary with dropped out halfway through our time there, converted to Judaism, and then married a rabbi. Albert Camus, arguably one of the greatest existential thinkers and nihilists of modern time is said to have converted to Christianity on his deathbed.
The funny thing about the journey is that we don’t all end up at the same place.
I wrote a friend once, “Do you think it’s possible to believe in Jesus but not believe in God?”
“Well,” she responded, “Most people who abandon one tend to believe in God but let go of the Jesus stuff. But you’re not most people and that’s what I love about you.”
Why am I telling you all this? Why tell the stories of those who have left the faith, confused the faith, added to the faith, subtracted from the faith? Shouldn’t Jewell have hired me to come give you clarity, insight, hope, maybe even a little God-breathed Holy Spirit?
I was asked to speak tonight about the head and the heart. How do we reconcile intellectual Christianity with emotional Christianity? Are they compatible? If so, how do we balance the two? How do they influence and inform each other?
While I enjoy speaking from a specific text and equally enjoy speaking on a given subject as both give me time to wrestle with my thoughts juxtapose them with academia, ask how that relates to my personal experiences and then wonder at the role that beauty plays in it all, this subject of “the head and the heart” really threw me for a loop.
And then I remembered something another religion professor said to me my second year at Jewell. “Christianity should be like a three-legged stool,” he said, “the Bible, your experience, and Christian tradition” (or what I would call, community) “should all three inform your faith.”
A three-legged stool.
And if we apply this head and heart thing to the stool analogy, then the head or academia would be Scripture: our stories, our laws, our literature. And the heart would of course be our experiences. And if that’s the case, then the two elements of our faith that we’re talking about tonight are insufficient in and of themselves. Using this metaphor, our stool would only have two legs.
So I turned to the text.
The Jewish shema, or Deuteronomic code, found in Deuteronomy 6 is a prayer and admonition that sums of the Torah and its teachings, sums up the law. If anyone asks a Jewish person to give a testimony of their faith in 10 seconds, this would be a possible starting place. “The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” it reads. “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
If you’ve never read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, it will at least sound familiar to you because it’s the latter half of this that Jesus cites when he is cornered by the Pharisees and others who ask, what is the greatest commandment of all. Each of the synoptic gospels records a similar response.
In Matthew, Jesus states, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (22:37). And in Mark he says, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (12:30). And in Luke 10:27 we read, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
As Luke 10 demonstrates, Jesus and the man talking to him, add, “Love your neighbor as yourself” to the “love your God with your heart and mind” part of the Deuteronomic code. Matthew and Mark do the same: “‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” writes Matthew (22:39). And Mark says, “‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:31).
In John we don’t get quite the same stories in quite the same fashion. In John, Jesus doesn’t reference the Shema, he simply tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
So in reflecting on these texts, I wonder if this whole head and heart conversation is missing something… what if it’s missing our hands? What if the question of intellect and emotion isn’t leaving out part of the equation? What if the best Christianity is practiced when it’s a combination of our heads, our hearts and our hands?
There were Jewish scholars like Nicodemus who snuck out at night to have theological conversations with Jesus. There were broken-hearted women who came to him seeking acceptance and love. There were sick, bleeding and ostracized people who needed a little dirt and spit rubbed into their wounds. And to each Jesus gave his mind, his heart and his hands.
And perhaps, so should we.
Some of us make great medical missionaries, we build houses with the best of them, we can teach sewing and farming and other sustainable economic options. We know how to use our hands.
And there are some of us who can go into the rich, white, suburban classrooms where the teenagers have everything their hearts’ desire (clothes, cars, collagen, cocaine, all the best colleges calling on the phone) and offer those teenagers hope, that indeed, despite all their stuff, stuff that will eventually expire, there is grace, that indeed, there is a God who loves them apart from it all, loves them as they are with or without the purse, with or without their ability to perform.
And there are some of us who can look at the night sky and name all the stars and constellations and clusters, and give a name to the Wonder who created them.
The hands, the heart, and the head. Some of us are better at one over another, but truthfully, we need all three to survive. And it’s all three that Jesus asks us to engage.
Love the Lord your God will all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor. Love God with everything that you are, and take care of the people around you.
Your heart, your head and your hands. I don’t know where you’ll end up if you engage all three. I can’t quite even tell you where my faith will lead me. All I can do is remind you to be gentle with one another, for you never know where your neighbor is in the head, heart, and hands journey. And be gentle with yourself too. The world is a scary, shocking place, and if you haven’t discovered that the world will hurt you, you will soon enough, and you will discover that you do your fair share of hurting others too. But with a balance of our heads, our hearts, and our hands, we stand a better chance of being the whole and healthy people God longs for us to be…
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and for heaven’s sake, love your neighbor as yourself.
Deo Fisus Labora.
Rev. Ann Pittman
William Jewell College "Mosaic"
October 27, 2011
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
The heart breaking makes a sound, I never knew could be so beautiful and loud, fury filled and we… collide.
The heart breaking makes a sound.
Sometimes it’s loud, like a freight train’s horn as it rattles by you sitting in your car facing the tracks. Sometimes it’s softer like the sound of your roommate’s glasses under your left foot when you jump from the top bunk to the floor.
Loud or soft, it makes a sound.
It’s nice when it’s loud. You hear it, and your professor hears it, and your mother, and even your 82-year-old grandfather who won’t wear his hearing aides hears it. And this is comforting. Most everyone will give you space to pick up the pieces… grief has struck and everyone knows it takes time to put your heart back together.
When the sound is softer, managing our hearts becomes a little trickier. We may not even recognize that the crack, that little pain, those wide eyes with the fluttering lids symbolize the breaking of our hearts, our ideals, our paradigms… ourselves.
I did a lot of laughing when I came to Jewell. I loved, loved, loved college and my gluttony for this new chapter of life was not without cause. I was getting a great education, making fabulous friends, eating delicious desserts at every meal…
But for as much as I loved my first year at Jewell, it did not pass without a tear or two. For “Responsible Self” I turned in a reflective essay to Dr. Walters at the end of the semester: a 17 page, size 9 font, personal novella about my struggles (sorry Mark!).
Life which had seemed so fun to explore, so easy to discern, so manageable became convoluted, complicated, and more confusing the further away from home I traveled.
You know what I mean.
You watch 60+ wild, beautiful animals killed after their owner set them loose and then committed suicide; you see the rebellions in Libya, Egypt, Syria, the cost of which we hope is worth the freedom; you read about the middle class marching on Wall Street and beyond, not welfare families, but people like us seeking justice in this shallow, selfish economy; the 13th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death passes and you know we’re still not done hating the gays; and to top it all off, you can hear your suitemate throwing up her food every night and you struggle whether or not to tell someone.
The God who gives us the Ozarks and cherry pie and Arrested Development is the same God who gave Abraham a promise, the Hebrews manna, and Israel a Messiah. God has not left us without hope. The Spirit moves among us like a crisp breeze, breathing sustenance into fatigue and life into death. And we… collide… with God.
And in that collision the depravity and the divinity get all jumbled together and we begin to see it all is sacred so long as God is with us on the journey. So long as God is at home in our hearts.
Rev. Ann Pittman
William Jewell College Chapel
October 26, 2011
Monday, October 24, 2011
It will be the past
and we'll live there together.
Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We'll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever. ("Heaven" by Patrick Phillips)
In my first memories of my grandfather, he is always outside. He is on a tractor mowing acres of grass on a farm in Minnesota. He is reeling back and casting into a lake to pull out a fish much bigger in his imagination. He is sitting in a chair on a porch or in a garden watching my grandmother pick green beans off a vine or maybe raspberries off a bush. He is emerging from cornfields with the husks waving high above even his head. He is on a beach in Hawaii in a photo he’s brought back to Missouri; he’s reading a book on a beach. He is outside, living.
"This is what you shall do,” Walt Whitman once wrote. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."
My grandfather was outside living.
He gave me some fossils when I was a little girl, some old fossils I suppose he had kept in his science classroom, but once retired, he passed on these little treasures in an old cigar box: a leaf imprinted in stone, a piece of petrified wood, and I kept those fossils in the cigar box and in my bedroom knowing that they connected me not only to my grandfather who loved science and nature and this beautiful world we live in, but they connected me to something much greater, much older, much bigger than even he or I could imagine… they connected me to the Creator.
My grandfather was outside living. But he didn’t just love the land, he loved animals too. I’ve heard stories of the farm in Minnesota and raccoons you could pet, and domesticated ducks named Ike and Mayme, and the old black and white photos of some cat grandpa loved, or Liza who used to lay at his feet near his favorite chair. My Aunt Milly describes the critters that were always kept around the house or in the yard or in Grandpa’s classroom: little mice, salamanders, guinea pigs, snakes and all kinds of interesting things. I can remember as a child, driving back up to the farm from Missouri to Minnesota, if ever we would spot a turtle alongside the road, my grandpa would pull the car over, get out to inspect it, and if it wasn’t a snapping turtle, we were often allowed to keep it, or at the very least play with it for a few minutes in the tall grass alongside the highway.
My grandfather father spent much time living outside and much time living outside himself.
Maybe it was his understanding of science and nature that summoned forth a reverence for the Creator of all things. Maybe it was his sense of connection to all things created, the handiwork of God that inspired his faith. But my grandfather was a faithful man, a man who lived outside himself.
“We’ll take the bill,” I can hear my grandpa announcing to the waitress, loud enough that my mom and dad could hear and later loud enough that I could hear so that none of us would be tempted to lay a hand on the little white slip of paper that would be delivered to the table where we were dining. He was insistent on providing for his family, not because he was the man of the house or out of some acquiesce to a sensationalized gender role, but because he adored his family, because he wanted to make sure that we were all cared for, that we knew we were loved and supported.
His prayers would have been enough though.
“I’m praying for you,” he said to me almost every time I would leave or arrive in St. Joseph for a holiday or vacation. “I’m praying for you,” and I knew he was, more than I (the minister) was praying for him, I’m sure. Even the last time I saw him, when he could barely speak and rarely would put his teeth in which made communication even more difficult, he said to me, and I could understand him, “I’m praying for you.” I can remember my grandpa praying, years ago, at the table in his dining room on Sunday afternoons when we would gather for lunch after church. He would pray for all of those who weren’t with us there in that moment, wherever they were. And I knew he was talking about John and Ardys in Duluth and Ann and John in Honolulu and Milly and Mike and my cousins in Columbia and especially my aunt Gloria in Hawaii. Sometimes he would cry when he came to this part in the prayer. And I never knew why someone would cry right before lunch in the middle of the afternoon. At that time in my life I didn’t understand what it meant to do something you loved, to be somewhere you were called, even if that meant leaving the family you needed. But my grandpa understood that. And while he always wanted each of us to be happy, he voiced in his prayer the desire that all of us would be together in spirit, wherever we were.
His prayers would have been enough, but that’s not all he gave us.
Grandpa loved each one of his children and grandchildren exactly as we are. This kind of love should be a fine art. To allow another person to be fully themselves and to love them without expectation or judgment is a rare trait to find. In a world that spends so much time telling women and men to be skinny, athletic, successful, one-of-a-kind, valuing independence and perfection while at the same time pushing us all toward one generic prototype, we as a people have forgotten what it means to live communally, to live as the body of Christ letting the hand be the hand and the large intestine be the large intestine. J In a world that would rather report on what multi-millionaire just got married instead of what mother just worked three jobs to put her kid through college, my grandfather never asked anything of any of us other than that we be ourselves.
He was so careful to tell every one of us that we were loved. And he always treated people with respect and dignity. My cousin Ruth writes, “One thing that comes to my mind when I think about Grandpa is how he always seemed to accept me as I was. No matter what color my hair was or what crazy trend I was into, he always treated me with love and kindness. I remember when I was a teenager someone in the family commented negatively on how I was wearing my hair. Grandpa jumped in to stand up for me and said (in a matter of fact tone) ‘Well I like it how it is!’” J Similarly, my youngest sister, Emily recalls, “Every time I left grandpa he was always sure to tell me to ‘keep doing what you're doing!’ and would always let me know just how proud he was.”
And my grandfather was nothing if not forthright. While he didn’t always say much, if he had something on his mind, you can bet he was going to say it. And in a family full of Maker women, I suppose you’d have to learn how to be heard. My father recalls one of the first times he was having dinner with the Maker family. Of course, he joined my grandfather as the only man at the table. And as my grandma and the three daughters chattered on and on about the day and school and dinner, my father describes watching my grandpa ask for someone to please pass the butter. Being on the far end of the table, my father couldn’t reach the butter to pass it to his future-father-in-law, and being new, he didn’t feel it proper to tell one of the girls to listen to their dad. But grandpa kept asking and the Maker women kept right on talking until finally my grandpa shouted, “I said, ‘Pass the butter!’ Dagnabbit!” J As my Grandfather grew older and communication became even more difficult, we discovered that Grandpa only spoke when he felt like something was really worth saying. Usually this too was at the dinner table... and often had no relevance to the conversation at hand because my grandfather couldn’t hear well, and was pesky about putting his hearing aides in. So while the rest of the family would be discussing the price of sweet corn or the new candidate who just joined the political race, my grandfather would suddenly bellow out, “Are you keeping Austin weird, Ann?”
“Yes Grandpa, I’m keeping Austin weird.”
“Good, I’m praying for you.”
His prayers would have been enough, but that’s not all he gave us.
For a while in the late nineties I think, my grandfather began wearing a little gold angel on his lapel. Like the politicians who speak mindlessly from their podiums about liberty and freedom with their little flags pinned to their jackets, so did my grandpa wear his angel, but thoughtfully, to remind him of who he was and who was in control. One afternoon when I was home from college one weekend, he gave me and my sisters little gold crosses on clunky gold chains. The necklaces were not delicate or fancy, but then again, neither is the gospel, and I think my grandpa knew that. He knew the unending generosity of God and that too much generosity, too much compassion, too much truth-telling eventually led Christ to the cross. And handing us those crosses was his way of handing us his faith. A man of few words but a great many actions, the cross was a symbol of the lifestyle my grandfather had chosen and the faith he hoped we too would embrace, wear around our necks, lay against our hearts. I’m wearing that necklack today.
My grandfather touched many people’s lives. Beyond his wife and his three daughters and their partners and his eight grandchildren and little Jacob his great-grandson, my grandfather touched the lives of students over the years, of people at the church and in his Sunday School class, friends at the senior center and the archaeology society.
My Aunt Gloria tells of how proud she was that the city of St. Joseph called her father, “the expert” when dinosaur bones were found nearby. My grandfather’s expertise and compassion and inclusivity touched the lives of many people.
And we all touch each other in so many different ways. Sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. Marge Piercy in her poem, The Tao of Touch writes:
What magic does touch create
that we crave it so. That babies
do not thrive without it. That
the nurse who cuts tough nails
and sands calluses on the elderly
tells me sometimes men weep
as she rubs lotion on their feet. …
We touch each other so many
ways, in curiosity, in anger,
to command attention, to soothe,
to quiet, to rouse, to cure.
Touch is our first language
and often, our last as the breath
ebbs and a hand closes our eyes.
We all touch each other in so many different ways literally and figuratively. And that’s part of the great choice we are faced with in this world. What difference will we make? Who will we be? How will we treat others?
When asked what the greatest of all commandments was, how the law, the all encompassing life of the Jewish people could be summarized, Christ answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
And so as we go forth from this sanctuary today honoring not only a man but our memories. Those memories are testimonies to the life my grandfather led. He lived life abundantly under the influence of Christ’s sacrificial, all encompassing love. And it is abundant life, that is offered to us as well (John 10:10). The life my grandfather embraced was a life in love with God and a life that loved God’s people, no matter who they were.
May we too inherit the legacy of living life outside and living outside ourselves… Amen.