Friday, June 19, 2009

Good times at Orientation

I'm sitting at my desk in Thompson Hall 233, with a new student on her laptop listening to her iPod sitting across from me. She's waiting for her friend, also a new student, who is taking the French placement test on a computer across the hall. I'm glad for the quiet, since there have already been six other students taking placement tests today, some with anxious, over-involved parents in tow.

Yep, it's that time of year: Orientation.

And I have to admit it: as tired as I am by the end of my shift, and as cheesy as this probably sounds, I love this season.

I love beginnings. There is openness, promise, possibility. I love being a part of that for people.

Yes, helicopter parents are annoying. Some even piss me off when they answer for their student, incorporating their student's success into their own self-image. But even in the midst of that I love how I get to look their student in the eye and talk to them like an adult. Like they're able to make their own decisions. Because that’s part of what college is about: for better, or sometimes for worse, we learn how to make our own decisions. Let me tell you: interrupting parental control dynamics can feel great.

A lot of memories from my freshman orientation are coming up, stories that I can tell the anxious parents in the office waiting for their daughter or son. Stories about how hectic my orientation was and how in hindsight it's better to take care of ourselves than to stress out ourselves and our loved ones. Stories about how my parents were baffled by the notion of a Parent and Family Orientation, that when they were my age they just showed up on the first day of classes and winged it.

And a lot of memories from my summer as an Orientation Leader (as in, old-school Patriot Leader, circa 2006) wash over me, too. I remember helping people register for classes, especially that one girl who was the last person left in the room, who just needed to hear that it wasn’t the end of the world that so many sections were closed and that she could change things later at home. I remember proctoring the math placement test and telling students once they had finished the exam, "Go do something fun.” Because I sit at a desk in an academic department—and because I give people the time of day—I’m answering a lot of the same questions that people directed at me when I wore the green polo, and it feels good to be helpful in such a rudimentary way.

(Also, who could forget the interpretive dance about drugs and alcohol set to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Ecplipse of the Heart"? That right there is orientation gold.)

It also feels a little weird. I’m the guy at the desk. I’m not there to project my experiences on people; I’m there to explain the Spanish placement test for the billionth time. I’m not there to comfort parents; I’m there to make sure that they don’t walk into the freaking testing area (“Sir? SIR! CAN I HELP YOU???”). And I’m well aware that I’m on my way out, and that my job is to get myself to Minnesota in one piece, and that these folks are going to have their own experiences and make their own choices. So maybe it helps if I’m not a total jerk. But no one is going to remember me fondly (hell, the people in my small group probably don’t remember me). (Tangentially, I ended up living with my OL for the summer, years after my freshman orientation. Weird…)

At least these folks are taking the placement test now, when they’ve retained a little more French, than in the summer before their senior year. Really, if you need to take the test, just do it. Call me or one of my good looking co-workers at 703-993-1220. Peace.

OFPS 2006! I can't believe I found this picture! From left to right there are: me, Scott Picone, Byron Edwards, Javon Thompson (even though you can't see his face, I'm pretty sure it's him), Marc Moore, and Matt Berlejung. HT to Monica Block for taking the photo, and to the Mason Gazette for keeping it floating around the Internet.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It matters so very much

[Creative commons image courtesy of freefotouk. Communion elements from this year's Baptist Assembly in the UK.]

Last night I read Nadia Bolz-Weber's (aka The Sarcastic Lutheran) blog post about "taking the Eucharist to Denver International Airport at 10pm on a Wednesday" and felt an urgent need to respond. Here i s what came from that.

So, here's the gist of the story: One of the fabulous folks from House for All Sinners and Saints, an emerging Lutheran church in Denver, was denied the sacrament of communion in her parents' church, so other HFASS-ers met her at the airport with the bread and cup. For them, it was of utmost importance to be at the Denver International Airport late on a Wednesday night and offer the gifts of God to their sister, reminding her of the wideness of God's welcome, of the depths of God's love, and of the presence of God as close as food on her tongue.

"This is how they will know that you are my disciples: that you take my body and bloody to their airport," Nadia wrote. "Amen?"

Amen! I thought. Because for me and for so many people communion matters so very much.

Why? Because for almost every Wednesday for a semester, the experience of receiving communion brought a good friend to tears, having been denied the sacrament her entire life. Since she refused to participate in the political games around baptism, which too many times designates "insiders" and "outsiders," she had never been welcomed to the table.* And now here in a small gathering of students were people offering her the body and blood of Christ, the bread of life and cup of salvation. Just like that. No games. Just gifts.

Communion matters because, through text and tradition and mystery, these common elements are gifts to all people to share the reality of God's love for all people.

ALL people. The REALITY of God's love for ALL people.

Now, I'm not talking about some hippy-dippy fantasy where God is the dispenser of saccharine smiles and pats on the head. And I am so not talking about the fantasy where God "loves" people on the condition that they change who they are to behave and look like, say, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Or, those who believe in "family values." Or, heterosexuals folks. Oh, hell no!

No, I'm talking about the wild, crazy, grace-filled REALITY of God feeding broken, imperfect, beautiful people who are made in the image of God. I'm talking about the vibrant imagery through which text and tradition and mystery portray God's promises of new life and freedom from oppression: imagery like a table weighed down with a banquet set for the entire human family; a table of friends celebrating the feast of liberation, even as betrayal and state-sanctioned murder are immanent; of a body broken like bread, in need of healing.

ALL people, not just the ones with a "stamp of approval," either from me or the Church or even God-- because the immeasurable favor of God that is present in the death and life of Christ is so much deeper and better, assuring us of God's love and demanding us to be accountable to our participation in ways of injustice and violence. When the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts says to Philip "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" the intent is to joyfully make known the reality of God's loving action--God's allying with humanity-- through Jesus, not to seek approval or sanctioning or "fire insurance."

And how much more grace-filled could this image be: broken and beautiful people offering God's gifts to their sisters and brothers, siblings of every racial make-up and ethnicity, of every language and immigration status, of every gender identity and expression, of every sexual orientation (or asexual orientation!), of every physical size and shape and ability, of every degree of faith-- faith in Christ or faith in something else that brings them to the table hungry. How grace-filled, that broken people can be part of the giving of God's love, in an airport or in a college cafeteria, or in a rented multipurpose room-turned-sanctuary, or in a coffee house.

Thanks be to God.

For another response to Nadia's blog post, check out the poem another HFASS-er wrote.

[A creative commons image courtesy of six million dollar dan. I wish I saw peanut butter portraits of Jesus more often.]

*A note: Just because communion is out-of-this-world-yet-totally-IN-this world beautiful doesn't mean that there aren't hang-ups. My same friend who cried still chooses not to take communion in churches where the only fruit of the vine is alcoholic wine (we use non-alcoholic wine in our worship services on campus) or when only "the baptized" are invited to partake. I realize that these two things are very precious for many people living as faithfully as possible to their experiences of God in text and tradition and mystery. But I don't pretend to understand why. If anyone would like to articulate why this is true for them, please do. Grace and peace and thanks.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Something gracious

[creative commons image from Ottoman42]

Alternative title: Oh shit... (grace)

(I accidentally hit "publish" before changing the title, but both apply, really.)

A week ago I helped out with worship at a conference that the Metro DC Synod of the ELCA was putting on for ministry among young adults (check out their website here-- it looks pretty good). Once again, my anxieties about "church people" were eased by really engaged, thoughtful, nice people (what a concept... I probably need to start making that my expectation). The worship was shaped around the Pentecost experience of the Spirit breaking in on the scene and messing us up in all of the good ways: joining our perfectly comfortable (if complacent) dry bones into one crazy, beautiful, living body; breathing in new ideas about worship and leadership; and "renewing the face of creation"-- always creating, re-creating, making sure that apathy and entropy don't have the last word.

A lot of really great things happened, some very beautiful. A pastor who has been without a job for a while read the story of Ezekiel prophesying new life to dry bones with such magnificent weight to her voice. During prayer, a man gave thanks for the diversity of the church, and for a few moments I was sure that I would start crying. As we received communion there wasn't any music; instead, the walls resounded with the soft, holy murmur of "The body of Christ, broken for you" and "The blood of Christ, shed for you." At one point we even re-wrote Psalm 104:24-35b and volunteers came up for each verse so that our re-reading was a crazy-quilt of folks striving to keep the faith. (Mine is below.)

I still have a lot of doubts about whether or not I belong in the Lutheran Church-- whether I could ever get used to conservative worship, whether I would need to throw out the insights from my Presbyterian Book of Confessions and claim to believe a single word of the Athanasian Creed. And, of course, I shouldn't kid myself-- the ELCA is most likely going to split over human sexuality soon, and it has the same problems of the other mainline churches: decreasing financial security, traditionalism, and trouble reaching out to young adults. But then again, last Saturday I brushed shoulders with people that have a yearning to follow the leadings of the Spirit, wild and free and wise-- the same Spirit who, as Peter in Acts quotes from the prophet Joel, is poured out on both old and young alike.

If anyone's interested, DC Young Adults is having a Happy Hour on Monday discussing one of Luther's favorite pickles: Law and Gospel. Some folks from Mason and I are going, and if you're in the area it would great to see you there, too. Details and such can be found at the facebook event.

Here's my re-write of psalm 104:24-35b. You can find another version, as well as another reflection of the conference, at Ben Buss' blog: A Musing Revolutheran.

24 Looking around me, God, the world is full of wonders that you have made, and the crazy thing is that all of these people around me and all of the geological features and the animals and the oceans—All of them—are in tune to your deep Wisdom. Every one of them belongs.

25 Wherever “over there” is, I’m blown away by the incredible diversity of life. In the ocean, in the rain forest, on a college campus—innumerable ways of living your Wisdom.

26 Ships and cars travel water and road, and beyond them people run, walk, bicycle, dance, skip, and swim.

27 All of this is dependent on you, your grace (whether we know it or not) preserves us and pervades us.

28 And what a grace it is! Whenever I see it, your gift freely offered in laughter, in vulnerability, in courage, in celebration, I am filled to the brim with joy.

29 And yet too many times your face is hidden, God. Where are you? I am dismayed at your absence in injustice, in destruction, in disease that withers the ones I love.

30 Send forth your Spirit, God! Renew the whole of creation, give us all—people and animals, forests and oceans—new vitality.

31 So may your love and power echo throughout the universe, Oh God, you who rejoice in this festivity of wonder!

32 You, Oh God, are the One who can shift our lives as the earth shifts; our lives are not placid, but on the edge of volcanic possibilities.

33 So, with all of this ringing in my heart and mind, I will sing to you, O God, as long as I have breath in my lungs

34 May this rambling reflection please, God, for it is in the Eternal One whom I rejoice.

35b Shout the good news of God’s covenanting love, O my soul, now and forever!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mourning George Tiller

[Creative Commons photo from graciepoo]

I'm coming to realize more and more how central food is connected to ritual. Beyond birthday cakes and insisting on ham for Christmas (back when I still ate ham), food is necessary for healing (soup, chocolate, tea), celebrating change (french toast for Obama's inauguration) and mourning. People just keep dying, you know? When I found out that my friend Brittney committed suicide I felt compelled to do something life-affirming, and nourishing my friends and and myself with pancakes fit the bill. And today, when the murder of Dr. George Tiller took on a new weight for me, I went to work whisking up hot cocoa on the stove.

The horror of Dr. Tiller's death grew throughout the day. When I first read about it here (CNN report), I was struck by the vulnerability of being shot while serving as an usher in a church. Then the anger started to simmer, anger towards people who turn to violence in word and deed instead of dialogue-- because shooting someone is somehow better than civil discourse, individuals conversations, and arguing in a court of law. A classmate commented on my facebook status that there were protesters outside of that church every Sunday. What? Did they ever attempt dialogue? And I was reminded of a shooting last summer in which two people were killed at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist congregation, which had just put up a sign inviting LGBTQ people to worship. This is not a good trend...

Following a link that a friend had posted deepened my anger and sadness. Both the language of some of the commenters and of Dr. Leroy Carhart, a friend and colleague of Dr. Tiller, echoed with violence and extremism. For instance, one commenter wrote:

"When he stood before God at his death, he soon learned that he had made the wrong choice with his life. Now [he] is in the lake of fire for eternity with the devil and his demons. Tortured for all of eternity for the murders of innocent babies."
And, according to the article, Dr. Carhart

"calls the murder of his beloved colleague a 'terrorist' saying his friend's death is 'a declaration of war' on the part of radical anti-abortion activists whom he calls 'fundamentalist terrorists... no different from al-Qaida, the Taliban or any of them.'"
It isn't that I can't understand that there are very strong emotions attached to losing a dear friend or to those who perform partial birth abortions [correction: late term abortions]. But what rocks me is the implicit violence in their words, and how they don't seem to realize that this violence is the same. I mean, when I read their words, both say basically the same thing: that this Other person is evil, beyond any sort of redemption.

What drove me to hot cocoa, though, was when I looked at the website for Reformation Lutherans Church. I clicked around and when I wound up on the staff page, I saw that their senior pastor, Lowell Michelson, had been a student intern at the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the Ohio State University. Both of the Busses were active in LCM at OSU, so not really thinking I turned to Kriss Buss and asked her if she knew him. And then it sank in. "Lowell? Lowell Michelson?" She not only knew him from campus ministry, but she had met his family, she had held his kids. B-Buss had five of his CDs from his days with the band Echelon. Yeah, they knew him.

I'm re-reading Sara Miles' book Take This Bread, and last night--after sharing hot cocoa with Kriss, discussing a whole range of topics around violence and justice and sin and grace, and a couple rounds of MarioKart--I stumbled on one of many sparks of insight while reading before bed. Relaying the words of a bishop, Miles wrote:

"There's a hunger beyond food that's expressed in food, and that's why feeding
is always a kind of miracle."
So, I hope that the Tiller family and Lowell Michelson and the people of Reformation Lutheran Church have been surrounded by food full of love; maybe they've even been feeding each other. And I hope that the suspect, Scott Roeder, also has something to eat, maybe even offered in more parts grace than resentment or obligation. Because in lieu of everything being better, in lieu of a world where people aren't shot and where people's passion and anger can be channelled constructively and nonviolently, food is first thing I can think of that might begin to be a symbol, or even a sacrament, of healing. At least, that's what hot cocoa was for me.

If you're a person who prays, with words or meditations or cooking utensils, etc., please pray for all those caught up in this violence-- Dr. Tiller's family, the church, Scott Roeder, and anyone else who comes to mind.