All Pointed in the Same Direction: Body Acceptance, Grace, Nonviolence, and Our Whole Lives

by Karen Richter

Advent is short this year, y’all. Because Christmas Eve morning is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the season is 6 days shorter than usual! It’s a great time to do something pondering on the incarnation. I like the incarnation as a metaphor to help us have a healthier understanding of sexuality.

I’ve heard lots of people talk about incarnation as a one-time, limited engagement kind of thing – that it’s just about Jesus. I’ve heard lots of people use the incarnation as an exclusionary doctrine to clobber people who believe differently. And I’m not interested in that at all.

I want to make a case for keeping the incarnation… not in a literal “special Jesus” way but in a life-giving metaphorical way.

The shame around sexuality and BODIES in our culture is the best reason to keep the theology of incarnation! The Word became flesh and lived among us for a time (John 1.14)! Full of grace and truth :: when Jesus was fully human he was full of grace and truth. WE ARE TOO. We are full of grace and truth! Who is full of grace and truth? You are, friend!

We know this. This is not new to us… except sometimes this is new to us.

Living it out  – living INCARNATIONALLY – means having a different relationship with our bodies than we are accustomed to. Living it out means treating ourselves and everyone around us in ways that our culture thinks is downright odd.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means “have you lost weight?” is not a compliment. Yeah, you heard me.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that “I hate my thighs” goes against my faith.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means shoving your 5 year old forward with instructions to “Go kiss Auntie Jean” tears down that child’s body autonomy.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that a school dress code that shames young women and holds them responsible for the learning environment is offensive and just plain wrong. “What was she wearing?” is always the wrong question… whether the setting is a darkened alley or a college party or a public school classroom.

On the positive side, Living INCARNATIONALLY means that when we show up for one another in embodied ways… with hugs or casseroles, on yoga mats or in the dugout, with fist bumps or shared tears, with birthgiving and diapering and nurturing, and yes, with sexual intimacy…  holy space is created.

Living incarnationally means that when we say God loves everybody… we MUST mean that God loves Every. Body. including our own… or we are liars. I like to say it like this: “God loves Every PERIOD! Body PERIOD!”

OWL - Our Whole LivesSo… The United Church of Christ and the Southwest Conference support Our Whole Lives. We do this for wonderfully practical reasons: because we value our young people, we want them whole and healthy. We want them to experience sexuality as part of God’s good gifts of embodiment and creation. And OWL does a great job at teaching sexual decision-making, values, safer sexual behaviors, and consent. In so many congregations, there are these awesome trained facilitators… they live this out, showing up for our students. At Our Whole Lives here at Shadow Rock, we eat together, we ask questions… we do many ridiculous role plays… It’s so fantastic.

BUT HERE TODAY, I WANT TO TAKE IT FURTHER. I want to move Our Whole Lives, and bodies, and incarnation, and sexuality to the heart of my own faith.

We believe that each human person is unique and unrepeatable. So in the OWL classroom and beyond, we foster a culture of consent… moving through the world in such a way that each person’s individuality is honored.

When consent become part of our basic operating system – when consent is entrenched as part of our core value of JUSTICE – when anything other than consent is anathema to us… we begin to move through the world in a non-harming way.

Consent and body autonomy are part of nonviolence for me. Nonviolence is not just nice (‘nice’ being a pretty low bar) – nonviolence is even beyond kindness (although kindness gets us closer). It’s a way of being – a kind of showing up – that’s marked by life-giving interactions with other earthlings.

Life-giving interactions with other earthlings. I have SO MUCH WORK TO DO on this. My way of showing up is way too often characterized by materialism and greed and arrogance.

But continuing to lead Our Whole Lives, even when the students are a little squirrelly… this helps.

Remembering that at my best, I too am full of grace and truth – this helps.

Being here, with you all in the Southwest Conference, being part of a group of OWL facilitators and trainers that embodies the Our Whole Lives values of Self-Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity… this helps.

Knowing in my heart in my bones that God loves me – that I am part of Every. Body. … this helps.

Our Whole Lives

So in this season of Advent, I invite you to be gentle, to remember how this idea of incarnation  – of the Word becoming flesh – makes us all siblings together, God’s children, full of grace and truth. Amen!

 

Tips for Interacting with Newer Humans, in Your Congregation and in Their Natural Habitats

by Karen Richter

My feminism became much more real when my daughter was born. She’s a native Georgian (with the double name to prove it), born where dressing and grooming your girl child is an expensive and full-time hobby. I was known for being a somewhat relaxed parent (maybe even a slacker), so I got this helpful advice from a friend,

“Oh for gosh sakes, don’t bring her to church with her diaper showing.”

There are, you see, cute, preferably monogrammed, little lace bloomers that one purchases to cover diapers when Baby Girl is wearing a dress.

Gigantic bows and lacy bloomers are not part of family culture in Arizona, for the most part. But it still seems that folks don’t always know how to interact with children in respectful, non-gendered ways. And we so want to make children and families feel welcome in our faith communities! Here are some things to try with young humans in your congregation.

  1. Recognize that children have moods just like adults. I have been in faith communities where the children’s behavior is seen as a direct reflection of the parents’ character. It was not fun. Accept that children don’t always welcome interaction with adults they don’t know well. Smile, and move on. It may be that we can learn something from kids who don’t hide their cranky moods, even at church. They are being real – you can do it too.
  2. Physical touch needs consent. When you see a child upset or sad, ask, “Would a hug or a back pat help?” For happy kiddos, you can say, “Are we fist-bumping today?” This can feel a little awkward at first. Practice… and know that you are doing a small part of changing our culture around consent and body autonomy! Plus it’s good for Safe Church culture. New families and parents visiting for the first time may be wary of adults who seem overly familiar with their children. When safe adults model consent, it makes unhealthy adult behaviors more obviously out-of-the-ordinary and protects all children.
  3. Strive for gender-neutrality. OMGoodness this can be hard! I’ve observed that adults most often make comments to little girls on their appearance and comments about ANYTHING ELSE to little boys! Discipline your reactions; respond mindfully and intentionally. Here are some conversation starters you might try…
    • How are you today? (It’s a classic!)
    • Is there something you’re looking forward to this week?
    • I saw a bunny/lizard/fast car on my way to church this morning! Did you see anything cool?
    • We are singing ‘Blahblahblah’ this morning… it’s my favorite! Do you have a favorite church song?
    • Replace “Boys and Girls” as your default way of addressing a group of children! Try Young Ones, Friends, Beloveds, Children of God… Be creative and find what feels natural for you.
  4. Learn kids’ names and help them learn yours. It feels good to be known by name. Decide how you would prefer to be called by children: Mrs. Smith or Ms. Sally… Mr. Johnson or Bill. Parents may feel uncomfortable with family titles like Grandpa Joe.

Are you cringing, thinking about that sweet kid just the other week whose sparkly shoes and hairbow you complimented? Or are you annoyed… seeing my suggestions as political correctness run amok? I recognize that our culture doesn’t encourage open-minded open-hearted ways of communicating with young humans. It’s a place where we can grow and learn – because there’s never a time in which children don’t deserve our best efforts. We must find ways of talking with one another – at all ages – that are true to the values of inclusion, respect, and inherent human dignity.

Let’s keep talking!

In Relationships, Small Things Count

by Amos Smith

Recently, I dreaded weekday mornings. Getting Luke up and ready for school was a chore. We butt heads. I would wake him, then he would get mad and say he was tired. Then I would prod him. Eventually he would start the day reluctantly and grumpy. It was a gridlocked negative pattern.

Then one day it dawned on me that I could change the dynamic. So now, instead of wake him, I set my iPod in his room and turn on his favorite songs at moderate volume. Then after a few minutes I lay beside him on his bed and talk to him about the day ahead (he likes to know about plans ahead of time). Now he wakes up happy.

Most people do creative problem solving in their relationships like the example above. Yet, since my centering prayer practice has deepened, I’ve noticed that habitual letting go and out-of-the-box ideas come more frequently.

Primal Spirituality

by Karen Richter

I just read something in Spiritual Directors International’s journal about ‘primal spirituality.’ Not the spirituality of ancient humans, but the first spirituality: that way of approaching life that sets us off on a path of growth and contemplation.

When I look at my own life and think about where it all started, several memories and experiences come to mind:

  • As a teenager, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and becoming committed to nonviolence.
  • As a college student, coming to terms with the suffering of my 3 year old cousin with brain cancer and the terrible lie that says people get what they deserve.
  • In young adulthood, considering the death of my grandparents and realizing that being healed is different from being cured.
  • During my 30s, realizing that the way I prayed had changed to reflect a different kind of vision for God.

These and many others were formative experiences, along with the slow growth pattern of living in the community of marriage and parenthood. But there’s a particular experience that is on my mind today, which was the primal experience for growing the spirituality of my life now.

I had a miscarriage after my second child. As these events go, it was early, uncomplicated, and ordinary. I healed quickly and moved on.

About 10 months later, I found myself staring at a positive pregnancy test again. I was understandably more reticent about sharing my news, a bit more circumspect about making plans and assumptions about the outcome. At around the 5 week mark, I began experiencing signs of miscarriage again. My doctor’s advice was just to wait it out until an ultrasound at 8 weeks could tell us more.

And that three weeks was simultaneously incredibly difficult and unexpectedly rewarding. Rather than assume the best or the worst, I took an in-the-moment approach to the waiting. This was my mantra during those days:

  • I am pregnant today and I am grateful.
  • No matter what happens tomorrow or the next day, week, or month, I am pregnant today and I am glad for that.
  • No outcome will change the gratitude I feel today.

My joy at the birth of my daughter later that year was all the much greater because of my gratitude practice.

Today, about 11 years later, I have more sophisticated words for this kind of approach to life. I might tell you about my spiritual life… how it’s important to me to live my life as if it were as a gift. I might explain that I have a comprehensive view about life, how good things and bad things happen but life itself is capital G “Good”.  I can talk with you about process theology and religious maturity all day long. Yet is comes down to a primal spirituality:

  • I am alive today and I am grateful.
  • Someday my experience on the earth will end and there’s no way to know what happens next, but today I am alive and thankful.

Meditation:

The days of a human life are like grass: they bloom like a wildflower; but when the wind blows through it, it’s gone; even the ground where it stood doesn’t remember it.* Yes, we are just as fleeting as a flowering weed but we bloom beautifully in our time. Amen.

*Psalm 103.15-16

Mother’s Day Musings

by Karen Richter

I kinda hate Mother’s Day.  There are reasons:

  • My family – and many many other families – feels pressure to spend money for things I don’t need to show their appreciation.
  • Progressive churches feel pulled in multiple ways: to recognize and appreciate mothers, to honor people who are nurturing others in various ways, to affirm persons who are not parents, to make some nod in the direction of gender equality and the feminist movement, to give at least passing attention to the neglected feminine images of the divine in our scripture and tradition. We end up doing none of these well.
  • I imagine that in a less patriarchal culture, Mother’s Day wouldn’t need to exist at all. In fact, I suspect that the more we wax nostalgic about motherhood, the less the actual, real life work of women is valued. More concretely, when we have an emotional attachment to the sacrifices parents (particularly women) make for their children’s benefit, we don’t push for public policies that makes families’ lives easier.
  • I’m encouraged to leave the dishes in the sink… “After all, it’s Mother’s Day!” which in some years just means that they are waiting for me on Monday morning.

Like many of us who think purposefully (and perhaps too often) about theology and gender, I’m conflicted about the whole idea.

Yet this year, almost by accident, I agreed to plan worship for Mother’s Day. There are several of us at Shadow Rock, a mix of clergy, staff, lay members, and members in discernment, that tackle certain liturgical seasons and apply our creativity and inspiration to the lectionary to plan our time together on Sunday mornings.

And, almost with a little wink at my inner conflict, several things began stirring…

First, May 8 roughly coincides with the end of our exhibition of the Shower of Stoles project. Planning around Annual Meeting, we arranged to receive about 80 stoles of LGBTQ pastors, deacons, church staffers, and other faith leaders. Each stole tells a story. For some it’s a story of terrible pain and a loss to the church of a potential leader as someone was denied their ministry because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. For others, it’s a journey of questioning and struggle ending in wonderful affirmation.

As I read the stories attached to the stoles, my heart was enlarged, swollen with tenderness for the lives the stoles represent.

What if this story were my child’s story?

Then I looked at the gospel reading for this Sunday, May 8. It’s John 17.20-26. I’ve heard John Dorhauer preach movingly on this same passage. “The prayer of our dying Savior,” he says. But this time I heard something different… a parent preparing to leave her children.

“I ask…  that they may all be one.”

It’s good that I must leave you, Jesus says. You will go on to learn so much more, he promises. Are they really ready to live their faith independently, without the guidance of Jesus? Four times in this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for unity. Do you feel his conflict? Anguish: at having to leave behind these dear friends, these precious beloved students and Confidence: with faith in their continued growth and guidance into all truth (16.13).

He sounds like Mom.

The final movement for me was a parenting meme I ran across online:

child's inner voice

Next week, we celebrate Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This anticipation, too, tied in to the growing idea of Jesus the Mother. As a parent, I hope that my children have absorbed the best of my instruction and attitude as their inner voice. I pray that as adults, they hear my voice from the times when I was accepting and encouraging, peaceful and faith-filled… rather than the times when I failed to express my best intentions. And I wonder if, in the Garden in the midst of this prayer, Jesus wondered about the voice his friends and subsequent generations of Jesus People would hear as their inner voice, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.

Now I don’t know if Sunday’s service will reflect in any way this series of ideas and stirrings that have happened for me as I wrote liturgy, prayed, and planned. Who knows what will happen in the hearts and minds of those gathered in the pews? I trust the Spirit will do what it will.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Joyous Pentecost.

May they be for us One Celebration… not of chocolates and Pajamagrams and brunch but love and fire and unity. Amen.

Serenity and Happiness

by Don Fausel

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
Amen.

This well-known prayer expresses some guiding principles for our living a happy life here and forever, as the last four lines of the prayer proposes. Although there has been some controversy about whether the theologian-philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who perhaps was the greatest political-philosophy of the 20th century, was the original author of the prayer, those concerns have been settled. It’s not because it was adopted by the worldwide Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs, but by years of disciplined research. If you’re interested in learning more about how the controversy was solved, I suggest reading a four page article by Fred R. Shapiro titled Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer.

I was aware of The Serenity Prayer from several friends who were going to Twelve Step Programs, but It was sometime in the late 1970s that I really took the prayer seriously. To my surprise, one of my stepsons who was in his early teens became addicted to drugs. First he was abusing alcohol, then marijuana, and he soon “hit bottom” as they say in addiction programs.  It was at that point when my stepson started his recovery in AA that I started to go to Codependents Anonymous a “…fellowship of relatives and friends of the addict and is composed of non-professionals, self-supporting, self-help groups.” From that point on, The Serenity Prayer became one of my everyday prayers.

Like all 12 Step Program meetings, they either start or end with the Serenity Prayer, and sometimes the group leader or one of members would “breakdown” each word of the first part of the prayer. In preparing this blog, I looked through some of my dusty files and found a handout written by hand that I vaguely remembered. I have no idea who wrote it, so I can’t provide the author’s name. It would have been one person’s interpretation of the prayer, and not necessarily something everyone agreed with, but the group would acknowledge the individual’s thoughtfulness. The meetings are about sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences. Here’s the example:

GOD—By saying this word I am admitting the existence of a Higher Power; a being greater then I.

GRANT—With the repeating of this second word I am admitting that his Higher Power is an authority who can bestow and give.

ME—I am asking something for myself. The Bible states that if I ask, I shall be given. It is not wrong to ask for betterment of myself for the improvement of my character, people around me will be happier.

THE SERENITY—I am asking for calmness, composure, and peace in life which will enable me to think straight and govern myself properly.

TO ACCEPT—I am resigning myself to conditions as they are right now.

THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE—I am accepting my lot in life as it is. Until I have the courage to change any part of my life, I must accept it and not accept it grudgingly.

COURAGE—I am asking for conditions to be different.

TO CHANGE—I am asking for help to make the right decisions. Everything is not perfect in my life. I must continue to face reality and constantly work towards continued growth and progress.

WISDOM—I am asking for the ability to form sound judgments in any and all matters.

TO KNOW—not just to guess or hope.

THE DIFFERENCE—I want to see things differently in my life so there can be some distinction. I need to sense a definite value in love over selfishness.

If you want to learn more about Codependence, here is a website titled A How To  Guide to Recover from Codependency it starts off by giving the three C’s of recovery:  

You didn’t Cause your loved one’s addiction.
You can’t Control it.
You can’t Cure it. (Believe me; I learned that the hard way.)

Guidelines for Finding Happiness and Serenity

Here are just a few suggestions for connecting Serenity with Happiness. The first one is the The Spiritual Serenity Series: 7 Steps to Inner Peace and Happiness . This is an eight-page article by Jared Akers. He breaks the process into seven steps:   1. Awareness  2. Acceptance  3. Identification  4. Self-Searching  5. Confession  6. Action  7. Maintenance. What I liked about Akers’s approach is that he has gone through all of the seven steps himself, and passes it on to anyone who thinks it’s might be helpful.

Perhaps you’ve read this article. It was the feature article and on the cover of Time Magazine in July 08, 2013.  The title was The Pursuit of Happiness and the sub-title, Why Americans are Wired to Be Happy—and What That’s Doing to Us.  If you only read what’s on the cover of the magazine, it’s worth checking it out.

Here’s one of my favorite TED TALKS on the future of our nation’s happiness:  The title of Nic Marks’ TALK is The Happy Planet Index. As the blurb reads, “Nic Marks gathers evidence about what makes us happy, and uses it to promote policy that puts the well-being of people and the planet first. He is the founder of the Centre for Well-Being at the UK think tank New Economics Foundation (NEF).” His premise is that rather than having our Gross National Product measure everything, accept what makes life worthwhile: happiness.

Shalom.

Values stink.

by Karen Richter

Why do you bring your children to church? Why do you think there are children sitting in the pews of your church?

If you ask parents this question (or if just now, you answered this question for yourself), you might hear answers like this:

“It’s important for me that my child learns the values of our church community.”

“I want my kid to be a good person.”

“Church provides my family with moral guidance.”

Values stink. by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference Blog southwestconferenceblog.org United Church of Christ
Can we agree than authenticity is better than shiny and happy?

Nope. Sorry – nope nope nope.

Church is not about values. Not only are there OTHER places in our society to expose your children to good values, there are BETTER places in our society to teach good values.

Scouting, team sports, community theater, chess club, school-based values curricula, VeggieTales… these are excellent sources for parents to teach their children the importance of fairness, teamwork, honesty, and cooperation. The kiddos will make friends along the way – it’ll be great!

Church MUST be more than values instruction. I’ll risk overstating my point (and annoying my readers): if we structure programs for children in churches with the goal of teaching good values, we will lose. Not only are the organizations I listed above doing great things with kids, the Gospel of grace always trumps morality.

What then takes the place of values instruction? In progressive churches, we’ve somewhat abandoned old-timey instruction. I haven’t seen a good fill-in-the-blank Bible worksheet since I was 10 years old. We’re working on abandoning a school-based model and even in some churches we’re getting rid of a star-earning, funfunfun carnival model.

What’s left? Just two principles guide children’s ministry in the post-modern era, and the earlier a child can communicate and internalize these, the better.

“At church, people love me just as I am.”

This means prioritizing relationships and connections over curricula and content. This means children participating in worship – not as cute props for adults to coo at, but as full members of the worshipping community.

“At church, I can ask questions.”

Values stink. by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference blog southwestconferenceblog.org United Church of Christ
Our kids can be like Jesus: more questions than answers!

Whether it’s a deep question like this one I got during Advent, ‘How do we know that Jesus was God’s son? What if he was just a good person?’ or it’s a question from the Our Whole Lives question box or just an everyday ‘Why?’ – questions are at the heart of the spiritual journey for every person. When our churches are safe places for questions, doubt, experiential pondering, they will thrive.

In fact, what would our churches look like if every person at every age and in every situation can express these same ideas:

“At church, people love me just as I am.”

“At church, I can ask questions.”

So, yeah, values stink. The Good News we have is so much better, deeper, and wider than values.

Peace to us all in 2016.

Be a Good Parent. Be Selfish.

by Karen Richter

Parent friends, can we talk? It’s rough out there, right? Parents get a lot of conflicting messages about how to be the best we can for our kids. Tough but compassionate. Attachment and yet independence. Respecting their agency but retaining authority. Let them make choices… but not too many. Say no and mean it, but stay positive. Be available for your children, but take care of your primary partnership.

And yet we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I’m convinced that parenting is a fantastic spiritual discipline. When I was a kid, I daydreamed about being a nun. Since I was born and raised in the South and never met a single Catholic person until college, this was never a likely scenario… But I think it had something to do with selflessness and dedication – the idea of spending your life doing something worth doing. And maybe it was a juvenile fantasy about Maria from The Sound of Music – that’s a possibility too. But what is parenting, if not dedicating your life’s energy, and sometimes the last cinnamon bagel, to something worth your best efforts?

Be a good parent. Be selfish. by Karen Richter - Southwest Conference blog
Good for babies…and my most faithful prayer discipline ever!

We parent to make our children good human beings and along the way, we become pretty good too.

At the same time, I see a lot of parenting anxiety. I see parents putting their children’s wants and needs ahead of their own – not out of dedication but out of fear. It starts as soon as the stick turns pink, with nutrition and playing music and avoiding stress. About the time my first child was born, new brain development research began to be available to popular audiences. The importance of second language acquisition, “windows” of prime learning, speech development, and stimulating learning environments for babies… I was convinced that any moment that wasn’t full of stimulation was a waste!

Now I see it more with afterschool activities, music lessons, tutoring, drama, and sports. Our families are stressed out. And it’s hard: hard to say no to the opportunity to play with a competitive traveling volleyball team; hard to step away from the pressure to perform; hard to insist on time for your child to just BE.

Be a good parent. Be selfish. by Karen Richter - Southwest Conference blog
Does this look familiar at all?

So start with you. Be selfish. Be a role model for selfishness. Take care of your own spiritual self. Find something that feeds your own soul.

I see families… good loving wonderful families… who are involved in a faith community for their children’s sake. Goodness knows, that’s not a bad thing, but those parents need to hear this loving and gentle instruction: you too are a child of God. Find something spiritual for you.

You.

You are unique and unrepeatable.

You – the universe becoming self-aware.

You, sent by the Spirit to the world to learn and grow all your life long.

You are a gift to the world, so take care of that good gift!

And Merry Christmas to all.