I had been waiting for the call for much of my life, the one that said my mother was dying. Over the years there have been many calls–for urgent care visits, doctor’s appointments, grocery runs, help cleaning the apartment. It’s always serious. This time, it was real. Interstitial lung disease has no cure. The lungs continue to develop scarring so that, with each cold or respiratory event, they can no longer take in sufficient levels of oxygen. This time, her lungs finally gave out. The times I saw her in the last six weeks, I could see, too, that she was sick of living.

“In case something happens” was an oft-repeated refrain. For my mother, the emotional earthquake of the divorce was compounded by a tsunami-force illness, and she almost died. I was seven or eight. Nothing was the same after that. The anger she threw at my father stormed around me, the only child of two deeply incompatible humans. Add to that the bitterness oriented toward her mother would rain down in phrases–“I am a much better mother than her” and, “you’re lucky to have me.” Meanwhile my child sized body absorbed her vitriol year after year, until I left.

My mother was not loving, but she was kind. Some years ago she shared a memory with me of a Mother’s Day elementary school assignment. Apparently I had been instructed to write something about my mother on that thin, off-white, lined paper–the kind with a dashed line between two solids an inch high and with space to draw a picture. While my classmates compared their mothers to sunshine and roses, I wrote, “my mother is kind.”

My mother was angry. Her gaze was like flint with her cool blue eyes and pale skin. When she smiled there was a kind of forced compulsion in her facial muscles to do so. And yet, I can’t truthfully say that she never smiled; it just always seemed awkward. Or perhaps that was just with me. Emotions are foreign territory for some families. I only remember seeing her cry twice in my life–the second time was around dusk when she thought she had run over a racoon and killed it. Any time she told me to do something I thought I had already gotten it wrong. The thought of ever trying to please her burrowed deep within me. It just wasn’t possible.

My mother seeped bitterness some days. The divorce and her illness took away a great deal of independence financially, emotionally, and vocationally. Searching through files for the title to her car, I found cards from my grandfather with notes saying things like, “I hope this helps get you through for the next little bit.” She hated needing assistance. She hated the one who left her vulnerable. She hated how I adored my dad and wanted to spend time with him. The worst thing I could ever do was become financially dependent upon a man.

My mother was not well. She stayed alive through sheer determination, and a fear that I would turn out like my father without her constant correction. On bad days, her conversations were disjointed, jumping between present to past back to present. I remember one particular phone conversation during a heat wave–in the midst of telling me the refrigerator in her apartment didn’t work, she suddenly recounted a story of when my father couldn’t fix the fridge in our first house. When I asked her why, in God’s name, is she bringing up something from 30 years ago, she thought it made perfect sense. A broken fridge is a broken fridge.

My mother had big dreams. The sheer number of organizational self-help books, notebooks from certificate courses, and health guidebooks she left behind, is fodder for black comedy. She never spoke much of travel, limited mobility and adult onset diabetes curtailed her energy and desire to do much. Yet she loved nature shows and calligraphy. I found prints and cards in her apartment that I had sent to her from South Korea, along with other drawings she had collected. She always said she was aiming for a Japanese style in her home.

My mother was kind. Cleaning out her kitchen, I found thank you notes left for her from neighbors. She had only been there less than six months.

This Mother’s Day was quiet, almost ordinary. The previous two had passed with no communication between us. After an especially distressing phone conversation a few years back, I had had enough. Yet there was always the weight of wondering when to get back in touch. Getting back in touch requires having something to say, and I could never find the words. So, as I learned from childhood, at some point you just stop talking.

On Sunday, while social media was a blur of flowers, hearts, deep thoughts, and sincere sayings all dedicated to the wonder of mothers, I sat in anticipation of this coming Friday when I’ll join her coworkers in remembering my mother.

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a Watershed Approach

Sermon given the fourth Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2018 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Seattle.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. (and) Happy Earth Day. It is an honor to share with you a reflection on today’s scriptures in this season of the resurrection, as all creation waits for the coming reign of God the Creator, Source of abundant and everlasting Life.

My husband, Christopher and I come to you from lower Queen Anne, via Chicago. We tried to live away from mountains while I started a doctoral program in theology and ethics, but Lake Michigan is a bit unsettling for some of us—it’s on the wrong side, for one, and then it just drops off at the horizon. So, we’re back; and it is good to be back. Before going further, I want to acknowledge that we are worshiping in the Duwamish watershed, so named for the river and the people who have shared their identity, united by water and salmon for a great long time.

Take a moment and imagine waking up one morning, looking out the window, and there stands a flock of sheep milling about. You think, perhaps the neighbors decided they needed some mowing done—but, no. When you walk out the door, their big brown eyes focus on you, expectantly. One particularly fluffy, and disheveled, ewe ambles in your direction. They are hungry, thirsty, and a little unnerved. These are not urban creatures, and unlike goats, they won’t tackle the blackberry hedge down by the tracks at Golden Gardens. So, where might you take them for food? Aside from the garden hose tap, where is the nearest source of freshwater? How do you even begin to care for these creatures?

sheep on the hillsidePsalm 23 paints a bucolic scene of an attentive shepherd leading his animals to dewy green pastures and calm streams. The poem is a song of trust, attributed to David, sung to Yahweh. The biblical imagery is familiar both from other places in scripture, and (for ancient listeners) from the hillsides and wadis surrounding towns in the ancient world. For the psalm to speak of lush pastures and clear water, followed by a table set and a cup that overflows—these are signs of abundant life. Such life is contrasted with the threat of death: a deep dark shadow, the presence of enemies.

In their collective contexts, the motif of God our good shepherd is familiar to the ‘Jews’ (using John’s language) of Jesus’ time, particularly the religious elite. The word most often translated as ‘good’ (for good shepherd) can also mean ‘noble’; it’s antonym is not “bad” but, rather, shameful. Thus the shepherd willing to lay down his or her life for the sheep lives according to a different code. They choose the good of the other whom they are called to care for. The noble shepherd is held up in stark contrast to the hired hand who abandons the sheep. Danger is above his pay grade. Jesus was not subtle in his insinuation that the religious leaders were the hired hands who have not cared for their flock as they should.

Echoing themes of life and death, Jesus inhabits the person of the good and honorable shepherd who willingly places his life in danger to keep the sheep alive. In John’s text he enrages the religious leaders with the statement “I AM”—the very words that constitute the name of the Holy One of Israel. Remember Moses and his little chat with a burning bush? There he was, with his father-in-law’s sheep, on Horeb, the mountain of God, when a voice emerges from the flames and tells him to go speak to the Israelite leaders suffering under Pharaoh. In Moses’ trepidation at being chosen to liberate the very people he had abandoned some years past, he insists on a name to give the Israelite leaders. [God/YHWH] said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [Exodus 3.14b] Moses was not entirely convinced, but from that point on, according to tradition, Yahweh / I AM / Adonai is the divine name, the name of the One who delivers the people. Yahweh is my shepherd, who gives food to those who lack, and water to those who thirst. For Jesus of Nazareth to claim this name was blasphemy.

Moses and David were the archetypal shepherds of Yahweh. Shepherds gather their flocks close for safety. They look for any sheep who wandered too far afield. They know each animal by face and temperament. They make sure the less assertive sheep get enough to eat and drink. Jesus also reminds us that the sheep know their shepherd; they respond to their own shepherd’s call. (Familiarity goes both ways.) And there is more—a shepherd must be intricately familiar with the landscape. Where is the good pasture? Where is there clean, gentle water the sheep can drink from? Are the paths of last month or last year still traversable? Are the paddocks secure? In other words, shepherding—like farming, fishing, and forestry—is intricately linked to place. Tending creation and our fellow creatures happens somewhere.

~ ~ ~

Do you remember a moment when Psalm 23 came to mind as a source of comfort, your own song of trust? Where were you—inside, or outside? In a church, or perhaps a garden? I remember once in college—it was a bad day—I was in a foul mood, so I went hiking along a trail off Chuckanut drive. I had been there a couple-few times before, and was fairly confident in my sense of direction. That became the day I learned never to go off-trail in our densely carpeted forests. The squirrel scolding me for a good twenty minutes didn’t help much in reorienting me to the path, either. There, on the east side of a ridge, with the evening shadows growing ever longer, I prayed, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…He leads me to the right path, where my truck is parked. (I felt a little sheepish that day.)

Getting lost in the woods was part of my childhood, but so was exploring with an experienced guide. During weekends and school breaks, I would often travel with my dad out to local streams and rivers to investigate salmon habitat, or check out hatcheries up and down the Puget Sound region. I learned to read water at a young age; the swirls of fast currents roiling over submerged debris, the quiet eddies circling below wide cedar root systems. It’s good to know where the shallows end when your boots only go so high. I would watch my father work, taking water samples, checking for impassable culverts, analyzing riverbeds for imbalances in sediment washed down every spring and fall by flood waters. Here in the northwest we have a different kind of shepherd—those who seek to guide salmon back to their spawning grounds, and help native fish species thrive. We could also call their work stewardship, yet there’s a distinction between the resource management of stewardship, and the embodied nature of the relationship scripture describes between a shepherd and his/her sheep. Shepherding is a way of abiding, dwelling with creation that attunes us to matters of life and death for our fellow creatures. To shepherd is to actively seek/pursue life, to facilitate flourishing, for one and other—even to the point where we are willing to face death (literal or otherwise).

There are differences between stewarding and shepherding. Stewarding entails managing resources wisely. God certainly calls on individuals and communities to be stewards. (and) Earth Day is a good time to take stock of where and how our natural resources are currently allocated, and to look for ways they could be better managed/conserved. Stewarding done well allows for increased access to goods and the means to live. Yet, if we only go by the logic of stewarding, when it gets disconnected from the gift economy of God’s reign, stewarding becomes a zero sum game. Smaller pastures means fewer sheep, and larger pastures means more sheep (and more is always better). Shepherding, on the other hand, places gathering and flourishing at the center. Our attention shifts to the larger context of interconnecting factors that engender life within a particular location. Such intimacy also, of necessity, draws us into a familiarity with those things that diminish life, that—like the thief—come to steal, kill and destroy.

On Palm Sunday this year, young people of St. Luke’s led a group of us around the immediate neighborhood on an ‘urban stations of the cross’. I hope they guide us through again next year, and every year. To hear the stories of some of our most vulnerable neighbors told in the shadow of Jesus’ broken body is a profound act of lament. In fact, I invite anyone and everyone throughout the year to visit the bronze leaves laid in the concrete there across the street (the final station of the cross). Those leaves carry the names of neighbors who have died on the streets. And they continue to fall and collect on the sidewalk. When we listen to the stories of guests and neighbors, we hear about their specific challenges and choices–or lack of choices–that are diminishing their lives. Some narratives are familiar, others less so; a confluence of missteps, or simply the wrong place at the wrong time with no one to guide them out. As the Good Shepherd knows, death, too, is linked to place. So the figure of the leaf is an appropriate link to creation, a sign that reminds us of the kind of death experienced by creation each year. Those particular leaves outside provide an apposite image—like a black and white negative—juxtaposed to the symbols in which we partake each week when we celebrate the Eucharist. We may not have actual sheep outside our door, but there are many who are hungry, and thirsty, and harried.

God in Christ, our Shepherd, invites us to celebrate grain and grape gathered to give sustenance to the weary, hope to the hungry. We know the voice of the shepherd because each week God in Christ gathers us together to celebrate nothing less than the life of the risen Christ, the one who traversed death. This is our head shepherd who leads us through valleys, who restores our souls, and brings us to the table—so that we may become attentive to creation and to our fellow creatures, here in this place. Amen.

It seems that the cosmos have aligned to grant us the juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of penance, with an almost cartoonish holiday of smacking lips, chocolate decadence and saccharine love that is Valentine’s Day. In the realm of social media, which do you choose: hearts or ashes?

This Lenten season starting on Valentine’s Day feels somehow incisively appropriate for the hour in which we find ourselves. The #metoo outcry is the story of amorous gestures devoid of love that are instead an articulation of power, which leaves the ones preyed upon a shade less whole. There is dust on the hearts of those who have been abused. The ongoing chronicling of black and brown bodies gunned down too soon adds to tales of unrequited love for those left behind. Mothers, sisters, wives, fathers, brothers, husbands, no one is protected from the possibility of suddenly losing their beloved. Loved ones turned to ashes. With this change in season comes a call to find new language, new expressions that can re-member wounds. We need all kinds of language and gestures to enflesh pain, sorrow, mourning, rapture, joy, love.

Hearts and ashes are signifiers of life and death. Orbiting together, they express a kind of mourning and loss that is not sanitized. The heart is unrecognizable without the blood that constitutes its function. A heart rendered physically is always wet, viscous, red by oxygenated blood cells, alive and moving. It necessarily extends out through arteries, veins, fluid; it can’t not be connected. The heart is always in contact with something, someone. Otherwise it is completely devoid of life. Ashes have a life of their own, particularly when brought into contact with wind, water, or soil. They are free and light, quick to spread at the slightest breeze or drop of water. Containing them is difficult at best. Where hearts pump vitality and physical life, ashes provide a grainy, pixelated rendering of spiritual life. Hearts run and flow. Ashes settle and permeate.

Blood on our hands. Ashes in our mouth.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58.6

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matt 6.1

Today is the beginning of a spiritual journey. The goal is not to give something up, per se. Yet, if we follow this journey in earnest, it will kill us. Something must die for life to emerge. That is the strange way of the Triune God, the way of the cross. To walk through this world with baptized bodies means to slough off layers that are no longer living or life-giving. Lent is the ultimate exfoliation. Yet even that doesn’t quite communicate in truth because the Spirit penetrates to the marrow.

The wounds of our society weep for recognition, and the church has equivocated its responsibility to the oppressed and the persecuted. Yet in this season, when we receive the ashes on our forehead, each of us has an opportunity to turn around, repent, and listen. Beginning at ground level, the dust of my own being, the soil to which you yourself will return, Lent is about self-examination. Each of us are located somewhere, among others in a particular place. We are here by some means either of our own choosing or through relational circumstances. There is soil beneath our feet that others have traversed, perhaps even been expelled from, or prohibited from walking altogether. Who we are is also intricately connected to where we are. Hearts moving over dust and ashes.

This Lent I will be asking myself, when and how am I complicit? When have I been silent? Which promises have I broken? How have I allowed my words to crumble into nothing? Blood on my hands, ashes in my mouth. Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison.