Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What Kind of Bunny?

Last Friday (3/18), I took my kids to see Zootopia.

It was a little intense for them, but on the whole they liked it. It was the three-year-old's first movie. If I had known that it was quite that dark, I probably wouldn't have taken her, but she sat in my lap the whole time and thought it was pretty neat. 

The theme of the movie, much touted elsewhere, is good enough for the very heavy-handed Disney presentation. The animals in Zootopia have all learned to get along. The movie deals with stereotyping and what happens to individuals when we stereotype groups. Granted, foxes, elephants, sheep, and bunnies have far less biologically in common than do all people, so should we need an animal film to show us how to get along? 
Nevertheless, as I watched the movie, I was increasingly agitated. There was obviously a lot of biological and anatomical research that went into this movie. While there were some animals that appeared slightly unusually shaped for their species (see: Clawhauser, the slightly chubby cheetah), most were drawn with some (cartoonish) accuracy. The polar bears did not have waists, the lion had a broad chest and narrow hips, the moles looked like moles, and even the rockstar, Gazelle, looked reasonably like a, well, rockstar gazelle. 

There was one glaring exception. The main character, Judy Hopps, is a bunny. She comes from a carrot-farming family of bunnies with 200+ children. She wants to be a police officer from the time she was little. Her mother and father, Bonnie and Stu Hopps, look like this:

But Judy, our heroine, our poster girl, the hope for every merchandiser under the sun who wants to break Elsa's hold on little girls... Judy looks like this: 

In a phrase I thought I'd never type, I encourage you to check out the figure on that bunny. Why does a bunny have a nipped-in waist and a defined bosom? Holding a rabbit to sex it got my dad scratched many times. If female rabbits looked like, we could have saved a lot of iodine. Additionally, most little girls don't grow up looking like this. It should not be amazing to me that Disney could not resist princess-ifying Officer Hopps, but I am still surprised. Why should she look like a realistic rabbit, when she can look like an unrealistic standard of womanhood? 

Judy works hard for what she wants. She learns important lessons about friendship, stick-to-it-tiveness, and forgiveness. However, alongside those important lessons, children are imbibing, once again, an unrealistic and unhelpful body standard for women. (We never see Judy doing her time in the gym to maintain this figure.)

When it comes to bunnies and bunny merchandise, we'll stick to Ruby. We might learn a healthy dose of bossiness leadership skills and we'll learn that bunnies that walk on two feet look like this:

Crosspost: Gaslighting

This was originally written for and posted on and posted on 3/21/16. At the time of posting, it generated considerable conversation and commentary. I recommend that you go over there for interesting thoughts beyond this writing.


Gaslighting is a strong word.

It’s a strong word with psychological triggers for many people, including me.

Gaslighting involves the perpetrator trying to convince the target (the one being gaslighted) that what they perceive is not actual reality. By convincing the target to doubt herself, the gaslighter gains power through distortion, lies, and misinformation. Soon the target may come depend on the gaslighter for “truth”, since the target no longer trusts his senses, perceptions, or even basic reasoning ability.

Donald Trump has been accused of gaslighting the entire United States of America. By doubling-down when caught in a lie, Trump makes his accusers doubt themselves, rather than backing down and admitting to the truth. His supporters refuse to see the lies because a gaslighter convinces his targets that only he holds the truth. If he says it’s true, it is true. If he says it is not, it is not.

How did we get here? Is this really the to-be-expected results of reality television, endless undeclared war, and a disappearing middle class? Is this the natural result of denying climate change, ignoring global political crises, pretending that we were post-racial, and arguing that the poor are poor due to lack of motivation as opposed to systematic and specific reductions in services and aid?

That’s a short list of topics on which people are gaslighted every day, through various media outlets and from the mouths of leaders. We are hardly able to have conversations with friends and neighbors any more because we have been presented with a specific set of facts in a certain way so many times that we are unable to process contradictory information.

Which brings me to a very difficult question and its answer. Does gaslighting happen in theology? That’s a different question to “Does it happen in church or the Church” to which the answer is, regrettably, yes.

Does gaslighting happen in theology? Is there a line of “truth” that has been presented for so long that no one dares to question it, even though it’s very, very wrong? The answer to this question, as with almost every question in a children’s sermon, is “Yes. Jesus.”

I do not mean that Jesus was or is a gaslighter or that God was or is. However, I believe that the church has been gaslighting Jesus’ story for close to 1800 years or more. We see the worst products of gaslighting in this week, which we call Holy Week.

I once asked a congregation in an open discussion time if Jesus had to die. They all, to a person, said, “Of course. That’s why he came.” For a second, I felt crazy, since I thought otherwise. In that situation, I had the authority, but I was being presented with 60 voices unified (with some, perhaps, afraid to say otherwise), something that I patently held to be false. Yet, the theology of substitutionary atonement had sunk in, somewhere and somehow.

Almost everyone in that room believed that Jesus came to earth with the specific task of getting to the right spot at the right time so that he could die in the right way. And to what end? So God’s honor would be avenged? So satisfaction could be attained? So Christ’s holiness could be swapped for ours in a cosmic deal between the Satan and God?

The Church, or most of her priests and theologians, has promoted some version of this for years. This theological gaslighting comes to a head in Holy Week wherein we feel that we see the culmination of God’s love for us on the cross. We beat our breasts, say we’re not worthy and dare to walk away, telling ourselves we would have been different. We can’t see the truth because the gas lights have been changed so many times that we doubt ourselves.

Good Friday is the depth of human depravity. God did not have a thing to do with it, except to grieve our inability to perceive the Holy. Jesus did not have a thing to do with it, except to forgive whom he could as long as he had breath. The Spirit did not have a thing to do with it, except to shake the earth, rip the curtain, and generally raise a ruckus in frustration at human cruelty. We have been gaslighted into years of believing that there was goodness in the death penalty being applied to the Word Incarnate- another brown man, with a shoddy trial, accused of being an enemy to the state and the establishment.

When we believe this about Holy Friday, we completely miss the point of Easter. It becomes about God being indulgent: “They’ve been punished enough.” We are gaslighted into downgrading the extravagant, holy, uncontrollable power of grace that brings life where breath and hope were gone. If we aren't able to realize the depth of total depravity, then we aren't actually able to hope in the heights of grace. When we’ve been led to that trough, it’s not hard then to drink the waters of works righteousness and apply them in our secular life, as well as our religious practice.

If we believe that our Creator requires a blood sacrifice to avenge honor or expectation.. if we put forward that God gets angry enough to kill a human being (even one who is also fully divine)… if we believe that God makes deals with Satan and they have to engage in a little horse-trading now and then, we do not have very far to go, then, in being gaslighted by leaders and would-be leaders.

Resisting the forces that oppose God (we renounce them!) means being truthful about God’s character and where we have gotten it wrong in the past. It means being honest about the failures of historical theologies and the shortcomings of present ones. It means freeing our Holy Week practices from the hair shirts of reenactments and groveling and being honest about the depravity of people and the amazing-ness of grace.

We must stop theological gaslighting, which can occur in even the most mainline of congregations. If we begin to be honest about the expansiveness of grace, then we will come to look for it in our daily lives. We then will recognize its opposites for what they are and can point them out with confidence and we will not accept being silenced. We will then be closer to working side by side with and for our neighbors for the good of creation and all. The truth will out. Out of the tomb, out of the evangelists, out of our mouths, out in the world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Question about Prayer

QuestionI'm stuck thinking about prayer because the logic doesn't seem to work. If God does not inflict illnesses or accidents, why do we pray for Him to keep us safe or to heal a loved one. Yet we pray for healing or recovery or safe travels all the time at church. If we are not saying “don't pick me with a life-altering disaster” or “skip us with cancer,” is it proper to pray “keep us safe”? Because it seems like I'm asking, “Don't let/make bad things happen to me” . . . and God doesn't cause bad things to happen to us which is where I started.

Or is the only correct supplication, “Be with us when the inevitable terrors of life and death come”? What am I missing? Thank you.

Dear Child of God- 

This question about prayer is excellent, thoughtful, and something to which I can greatly relate. We end up in a very tough spot when we try to make our faith or faith actions logical. There is a certain amount of reason that is absolutely necessary and (I believe) encouraged by God. However, it only gets us so far. The other part of our faith and trust in God is not based in our intellectual understanding or assent, but in pure trust in God’s own “God-ness” if you will. In the reality that God is God and we are not. To lean into and rest upon the faith that has been poured out for us by the Holy Spirit takes enough quieting of the mind without making it harder for ourselves in all the ways that we are prone to do. 

Ultimately, our prayers are “Be with us when the forces that oppose You seem to have taken control. Do not let me succumb to fear or idolatry. Keep your grace ever before me.” The things that we renounce at a baptism or affirmation thereof are real - external “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12) and our own internal struggles (see: the 10 commandments). The life of our faith is working to remember, to see, and to share that the Lord our God is the one God who has chosen to manifest in Jesus (the Christ) and in the work of the Holy Spirit… and that is just in the ways that we perceive. 

It is certainly worthwhile to pray all the things on our hearts- keep us free from cancer, heal this person quickly, comfort those who are fleeing oppression, bring peace to the Middle East. Yet, in our understanding of prayer, we have to remember not make it (prayer) its own idol, believing that the words themselves are protection as talismans or as invitation, if said correctly. We pray to deepen our relationship, to be part of the ongoing conversation (which means listening as well), and to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives. 

The toughest, toughest thing to grasp is that God is truly unknowable and that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Why do we start so many prayers with a reminder list of what God has done before? Is it because God needs reminding or because we do? If, God forbid!, you did get cancer of some sort, would you believe that it was God’s desire for you? Some people prefer to make sense of the world in that way, because that understanding gives things more order and thus they feel more in control. Control- our control- is always an illusion that we use to keep fear (and its companion, despair) at bay. If God is who we believe God is… then we do not actually have any control at all and the illusion that we do is an idol. (Stupid idolatry! It’s all over the place!)

Thinking of The Screwtape Letters, I believe that intellectualizing our prayer life is one way that the forces that oppose God attempts to build on our fears… not our doubts… but our fears. After all, faith is not action without doubt, but action in spite of doubt. As our lives change, the style or type of prayer that worked for us before may need tweaking or complete overhaul, but our need for that connection, conversation, and mystic communion is still very real. 

I don’t believe there is a correct supplication. There is only a correct attitude: “I am not You. Your ways are not my ways. Help me to see where you are working in the world around me. I’m afraid of…. I long for…. I lift up…. I believe….” And then you follow all that with “I’m listening.” 

I hope this helps. 


Pastor Julia

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ash Wednesday Loop

I once preached an Easter sermon titled "Ready or Not, Resurrection"... maybe I need to read it again for myself.

For this year, I am decidedly "not".

I am not ready for Easter. Not just in the sense of no sermon yet or no bulletins prepared or having conversations with people about music or atmosphere and being undecided, I mean I am flat-out not ready.

I am not ready to hear the cries of "Crucify him" and to see images from the news in my mind of mobs of people pushing black and brown-skinned individuals with whom they disagree.

I am not ready to hear "Give us Barabbas" and to picture a crowd that preferred a murderer to the embodied Word of God.

I am not ready to feel the roughed surface of the congregation's large wooden cross and have it draw to mind the mixed up winter we've had and its total on bodies and psyches.

I'm not ready to talk to people about assisting in worship, while admitting to myself (and maybe to them) that my prayer life has been stalled because of stress, grief, frustration, and anxiety.

I am not ready to try to come up with a sermon that is more that just what I need to hear, because what would that be?

Let's be clear. This is not "Why do I have to preach the same thing year after year"?

This is "How do I preach that thing that I need to preach year after year in the middle of the present pile of sh*t that is fire recovery, election cycle, refugee crisis, fiscal debacle, and general human pain when I am in the middle of all of it as well"?

Even as I type this, I remember again the reality of incarnation... the reality of God being born into that verkakta meshugas that is the creation condition. Good Friday is not God's honor at stake or God's wrath being satisfied. It's the inability of humanity to trust in, conceive of, dare to hope on the truth of infinite grace, mercy, and wholeness and there for killing it because we shut down what we fear.

And Easter is when God says, "Do what you want, but you don't get the last word."

That's what I am working toward in trying to move into an Easter frame of mind. Lent... however long it lasts... is not a long goodbye. It's a long hello.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why Poland?

Beginning in mid-May, I will be going on sabbatical for 11 weeks. Entering my eighth year of service to the same congregation permits me 12 weeks of sabbatical leave that can be used for a variety of purposes. Sabbatical is not vacation, but does use one's yearly allotment for continuing education. (I already went on one week of Con. Ed. this year, so that's why 11 this summer.)

During my sabbatical, I will be going to Poland (by myself), going to the East Coast (with my kids), celebrating my tenth wedding anniversary (with my husband), and thinking about some future writing projects and possible additional education. Thinking about not being at the church I serve for 11 weeks is strange. It also causes me to realize how much of my self identity is attached to what I do, not my title necessarily, but literally what I do and the people for whom I do. That's probably material for another post.

The question I get most frequently about sabbatical is: Why Poland?

I'm going on a Jewish heritage trip. My maternal great-grandmother was from Warsaw (other
maternal great grandparents came from elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Russia, also Jewish). Throughout my life, I have read about the Holocaust, those who died therein, those who died trying to save neighbors, and those who saved their lives by refusing to help their neighbors.

I have never been anywhere in Eastern Europe. I have never seen a tattooed arm, digitized- to further reduce the humanity of the Jew in question to a number and no more. I wrestle daily, truly daily, with the fact that I am not a religious Jew. I have deep seeded grief about feeling as though I have abandoned the extended relatives who died in any capacity or who risked everything to leave. They did not do it for me, per se, or for my children or cousins or even for my mother. Well, not for us personally, but they did what they did to save their own lives- escaping pogroms, oppression, and hardship- and to have better chances for those who would come after them.

While it is certainly true that living well is honoring them, still I wrestle. And I haven't yet wrung out a blessing. The psychic limping comes from dragging the weight with me and not knowing how to carry it, wear it, embody it with honesty, faithfulness, and integrity.

I am going to Poland to see the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, to say the mourner's Kaddish at the cemetery, walk along streets and listen to my guide (hired!) tell me about the history of Jews in that place. I am going to Krakow to walk the streets of Kazimierz, to pay my respects to the synagogues and shrines, and to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. I am walking the parks, rafting a river, sitting in milk bars, and thinking... thinking... thinking.

I'm jokingly calling the trip Nosh, Daven, Grieve- a play on Eat, Pray, Love.

My mother reflected on not going on this trip with me because of the current anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish!) climate in Poland. An acquaintance as recently as two days ago mentioned the same to me, noting that while it is safe to travel, the political climate is very charged against Jews, which has happened again and again and again in Polish history. Poland, even with its map littered with the remains of concentration camps, has yet to acknowledge the historic reality of the Holocaust (the Shoah) and Polish complicity therein.

Why aren't you going to Israel, my mother asked and she was not alone.

Here's the really hard thing to admit: I do not feel like I deserve a birthright trip (a visit to Israel that is part of acknowledging and discovering one's Jewish heritage in the present). Even with mixed feelings about Israel's actions and the United States relationship thereunto, I do support the Israel's right to exist and the Jewish need for her.

But, since I am not even sure where my menorah is since I moved from Nome (in 2005), I do not feel a Jew in good standing in my mind and heart to go to Israel during this sabbatical.

I do, however, in my mind and heart, need to go to Poland. I need to see, feel, taste, and weep over what is some of the soil of my heart. I need to see the pain and mourn all that was lost, including that which I will never know, perceive, or comprehend. And I need to go to bear witness to Polish history toward Jews. I need to go- not primarily in my Lutheran pastor identity, but as a Jew looking for part of her story, part of the story of death, rejection, exclusion, and pervasive hope in G-d.

I need to go to whisper at some point, or several, that I have a good life and that I will not forget and that I will teach my children what it means to listen to the strike of a match to light a candle, to pray in a certain way at certain times, to look for mezuzahs, the words of the mourner's Kaddish, how to make a matzo ball, and how not to take safety or protection for granted, even in America.

Even in typing this, I have come to a realization. The Passover meal closes with the prayer and the cheer, "Next year in Jerusalem." I do not know that 2017 holds that for me, but I understand one thing. For this Jew, the road to Jerusalem goes through Poland.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Selfie Snobs

The other day I saw this meme on Facebook and it was liked by several people I respect. The poster (who I doubt was the original poster) was not someone I knew, but a pseudonym (I assume and hope) that asserted that this person enjoys being the grouch in a congregation. That's too bad. Something about this particular picture/meme set my teeth on edge. It's not because I love selfies or even that I take very many. This has the tinge of annoyance that implies that people who do something differently than you are wrong, even if what they are doing is not inherently wrong. 
For much of human history, the people who were preserved in art had money. You had to have plenty of money to have your image carved in stone. You had to have the connections to commission a likeness and the implied power to keep the artist working. Even if a particular artist was creating an image that involved, say, a biblical persona, he (or she) might model the scene with a likeness of a local leader or wealthy person. 

Eventually art became even more of a sponsored medium and artists used less wealthy people for models. Nevertheless, people in lower classes or possessing less wealth might be posed in painting or reliefs, but certainly never expected to own one. Self portraits were still for the upper-classes. 

When photography came into vogue, it was partially disdained because of its equalizing effect. Capturing slave and empress alike, it meant that people for whom a family portrait had previously been out of reach could now have one- a prized possession. As the technology marched on, more and more of the "mundane" side of life became captured. If one can sit through family film strips or videos, one would see birthday parties and dinners being served. I remember my dad borrowing a video camera to make a movie for my grandparents and in the video we showed the areas in which
Van Gogh's Selfie with Bandaged Ear
we liked to play. I sat on a rock and recited the books of the Hebrew Bible. This is not the stuff of museums, but it is the stuff of life.

So back to selfies, it's not necessarily narcissism. Unless one believes that is the natural state of art de-evolution from only the upper crust having access. The selfie is a way that people show where they were present, whose company they were enjoying, and what they saw. Not every selfie is a work of art and some may inherently be in poor taste (which is just a risk one runs with art, in general).

Regardless, we must be aware of how we talk about selfies and those who take them. In disdaining the self-portraiture of the masses, as it were, one may sound less like a grouch and more like a snob. Sneering and contempt have no place in a congregation, whether one is a grouch or not.