If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Artwork Now for Sale on my Artisans Website

My original artwork (not prints) can be viewed and purchased through Cartfly at my Artisans of Social Website: http://artisansofsocialchange.ning.com. New pieces will be continually added.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sophia: Divine Wisdom

Finished this feminine divine image of Sophia. Sophia is the Greek name for wisdom. In Hebrew wisdom is chokmah. In the Bible wisdom is a feminine personification of an attribute of God. There are many references to Sophia in widom literature and particularly the book of Proverbs, where she stands alongside God in creation.

In Gnosticism Wisdom was a feminine aspect of God and dwelt above the created universe. In the mystical theology of the Eastern Orthodox tradition Holy Wisdom is understood as the Divine Logos (Word)who became incarnate in Jesus Christ (John 1:1ff).

Contemporary feminist theology has reclaimed and reconstructed this image of God as an icon of the feminine divine, even as a goddess figure.

In my drawing of Sophia there are a number of world symbols of wisdom: the owl (hovering like Holy Spirit), the snake (ancient wisdom symbol), the endless knot (Celtic), West African Ananse (spider's web symbol-top), Native American Medicine Man's eye (forehead),Chinese characters for wisdom, and Greek word for wisdom (Sophia).

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Five Alive: a parable poem by Leo Hartshorn

outside heaven's gate
they wait
ten bridesmaids
all in a row
five with lamps aglow
outside waiting for
the bridegroom

five without oil
for the bridegroom comes
in the pitch of night
to give light

so keep watch and pray
for the day
when he shall say
in darkness damp
light your lamp

A Survivors Tale: Genesis 6-9

Many of you have probably seen Steven Spielberg's powerful movie Schindler's List. The novel by Thomas Keneally, upon which the movie was based, was originally entitled Schindler's Ark. The image of the ark is an appropriate symbol for Oscar Schindler's factory, which was a safe haven for hundreds of innocent victims of the Nazi holocaust. Unlike the description of Noah in Genesis 6-9, Oscar Schindler was no "righteous man," at least in the usual sense of the word. He was a philanderer and playboy. And yet, Schindler turned his factory into an ark, a refuge in the storm. It provided a safe place for a remnant of Jews to survive the carnage and destruction that overwhelmed them like a devastating flood. The story of Schindler's ark is a story of survivors. The story of Noah should be read as a survivor's tale.

Before reading the story as a survivor's tale, it must be first read as a story for adults. Our first reading of the Noah story was probably as a child in Sunday School. Our childhood images of the Noah story have stuck with us. Ark floating peacefully on the water. Smiling animals stuffed inside the bobbing boat. Giraffe head poking through the ark window. Noah's hand reaching out to feel for drops of rain. Dove with olive branch. Rainbow arched across the clear blue sky. And all is well on the earth. That's the children's version. And unfortunately, many of us still read the story through the lens of our childhood. Understandably, our children's version leaves out the utter destruction of the story. As children we didn't read Noah and the flood as the tale of those who survived the total annihilation of all creation.

If we read the story of Noah as a children's story, we will continue to avoid the interpretive work of struggling with the questions it raises. We need to face head on the problematic issues in the text as we reread this story as adults. To read the story as an adult may mean reading it as it is read within the Jewish tradition---with a freedom to raise questions about the story without feeling our faith will be denied, the Bible will be denigrated, or God will be disturbed. And raising questions doesn't mean we will get satisfactory answers to all our questions. An important part of adult faith is wrestling with our holy texts and living with the questions that remain.

An adult reading might begin with some of the problematic issues surrounding the Noah character. The text says that the world was irredeemably wicked and Noah was "alone righteous, blameless in his generation." Was Noah really the only righteous person in the whole wide world? Of all the people in the world was there not at least one other person worth saving? What about the children in diapers who perished under the waves? Were they all "bad seeds," mere fish food? Must they have suffered along with the wicked? Should we, and even more so God, ever look at humans as irredeemable? Was humanity really more wicked and beyond saving than other countless moments in human history?

And was Noah really a tzaddik, a righteous person? In a utterly wicked generation, Oscar Schindler was a womanizer and scoundrel, schmoozing with the Nazis. Yet, unlike Noah, he didn't simply think of himself, but tried to save others from the flood of the holocaust. Was Noah more righteous than the womanizer Oscar Schindler? Can we consider Noah a mere "innocent bystander," not uttering a word of protest amidst the screaming, gurgling and gasping for air, the clawing and pounding at the gofer wood door, and remaining silent at the sight of all the muck and mess and bloated bodies lying in front of the ark's open door? Can anyone be called "righteous, who stands by silently, protecting themselves while others suffer tragically? Would we call "righteous" those who stood by, said and did nothing during the holocaust? Doesn't righteousness mean speaking up or doing something for the victims and concern for others beyond ourselves?

Abraham was a tzaddik, a righteous person. He argued with God in an attempt to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were facing annihilation. Was Noah really all that blameless? After leaving the ark he got stinkin' drunk, lay in his tent naked as a jay bird exposing himself to his children, then overreacted by cursing his grandchild because his son saw him in his birthday suit! Would we want such a man as President, or should I say church leader? Was Noah that righteous or just the most righteous in his generation, which was probably not saying that much? Or, as the biblical text and Jewish commentary indicates, did Noah merely find favor in God's eyes? That is, was he saved by God's sheer grace?

And what of God's hand in this shetef (flood), this "humanicide"? In our story we have a God who regrets having made humanity. People, supposedly we're talking about the God of the universe, God with a capital "G." God regrets having created humanity? Shouldn't God have thought this through before Genesis chapter two? A little forethought might have been nice before wiping out all of creation. I mean it's not like God didn't have time to figure out that we humans were going to blow it. I could have told God that! Wasn't God being just a bit rash? What would you think if a parent looked at their own children and said, "I regret having created these children. It makes me so sad they turned out so bad, so I guess I'll just have to wipe them off the face of the earth and start all over again. Oh, but I will spare little Johnny"?

We would consider childish behavior the child who doesn't like the sand castle he made, so he says, "I don't like this!" and throws a fit and knocks it down. The problem is after God knocks down the sandcastle of this world, the new one isn't a whole heck of a lot better. According to the story, after totally destroying all of life on earth, except in the ark, the text says God finally learns something about us humans that God didn't seem to know before the flood---we humans are evil from the start. So, as long as the earth lasts and the seasons change, God will not kill us all with a flood again. Does the God of Noah need an education at the expense of all of created life?

Or, we might ask of the text, was the destruction of all living things really necessary? Total annihilation? I mean, this was a cataclysm beyond the help of the Red Cross and Mennonite Disaster Service! Wasn't this overreacting a bit? Could not God have been a little more selective in judging the world? Remember the children in diapers outside the ark? Well, tell me also, what horror had the hippos done? What was the sin of the sparrows? What crime had the kangaroos committed? And someone wants to know, "Did all the fish drown in the flood?" Isn't nondiscriminating, mass genocide or "cosmocide" overdoing it a bit? Like Noah, does God need to learn some self-restraint and to not overreact so much?

Now, we realize that the ancient writer of the story presents God from a very human point of view. I have been questioning the text from a modern viewpoint, wrestling with the text, probing for its truth. As adults we may need to ask these kinds of questions of the Noah story. Remember, this is not a child's story. It's a story for adults.

Even more so, the Noah story is a survivor's tale. Leaving aside our questions for a moment, it is possible to view this story as the tale of a survivor. Noah and his family survive the greatest tempest to ever come upon the face of the earth. In a real sense, there are many today who are in the same boat as Noah and his family. They are the survivors of the Nazi holocaust, nuclear blasts, the Vietnam War, childhood abuse, rape, or survivors of divorce, family upheavals, poverty,accidents, tornadoes, floods, and other natural disasters. When you come out on the other side of such traumas, which turn your world on its head, you are often not the same person as you were before.

Survivors are often traumatized people. It is possible to read the story of Noah psychologically as the tale of a survivor, one traumatized by a world cataclysm. Traditionally, we have read of Noah's building an altar and offering a sacrifice immediately upon departing the ark as an act of lighthearted, joyous praise. Read through the lens of a survivor, it may be the response of one traumatized, an act of propitiation to placate a God of Terror, who can at any given moment wipe out all of creation. Might we also read Noah's drunken stupor as evidence of survivor's
syndrome, the reaction of someone pushed beyond the limits of what humans can endure? In most urban communities you can find disheveled, homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts who are Vietnam vets, victims of abuse, or family traumas, who years later are still anesthetizing themselves because of the calamities they survived.

We may not attribute every tragedy, trauma, or tribulation to God, as is the case with the story of Noah's flood, but the tales of survivors are strikingly similar. Survivor's are often haunted with the question, "Why me? Why was I spared, while others were not?" Could Noah have been haunted with such questions? Surviving traumas inevitably leaves some scarred. There are adults who have gone through childhood neglect or abuse who still bear the open wounds of their ordeal, having lost all respect for authority or who still have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.

Some fearful hearts, whose world has been overturned by a tornado, run in terror for the basement at any hint of green tinge in the gathering clouds. You may know someone who has lived through the Great Depression, who is practically obsessive with collecting and hoarding things that seem trivial to those who have lived without want. But, who among us has not been through some life trauma that has tossed our boat sideways and caused us to come out on the other side a different person? Aren't we all, in differing degrees, survivors?

But, the survivor's tale is not always a sad story. Being a survivor is not always a negative experience. It may create within us a heightened awareness of the gift of life and the grace of God. Noah's offering, after he left the ark, may have been a sheer act of gratitude for having been saved through the flood. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote this entry:

April l lth, 1945.Buchenwald. Hungry, emaciated, sick and weakened by fear and terror, Jewish inmates welcome their sudden freedom in a strange manner. They do not grab the food offered by the American.liberators. Instead, they gather in circles to pray. Their first act as free human beings was to say Kaddish (blessing), thus glorifying and sanctifying God's name.

We may come through the floods of our lives able to smell the freshness of the morning air, sigh a prayer of praise at the coo of a dove, or catch our breath at the sight of a rainbow. Being a survivor may cause our tongues to tell of God's goodness, our hands to do what God commands, our feet to walk more closely in God's paths, our heart to love more dearly God's world. We may begin to understand how God grieves over this wicked, wounded world. Having come through the wind and waves of life's overwhelming floods, some have set their feet down on solid ground and
have built new worlds, started new jobs, accomplished tasks once perceived as too daunting. Living through trials, traumas, and tribulations can cause us to renew our covenant with life and all of creation. Some survivors have turned to others who are struggling with life's swelling and swirling and helped lift them up from the wind and waves.

In the midst of a life that can come over us like a wild wave and tip our boats, we need stories to keep us afloat. Stories of survivors, from those who have come through the holocaust to a friend who has made it through a difficult family situation. We need stories of hope that give us the strength to keep on keeping on; stories like the one of Noah, that offer hope for strugglers and survivors.
Maybe we need this story because it brings to us a sprig of hope and causes a rainbow of promise to arch over our lives. Amid the flood of life's traumas and tragedies there can always be found a twig of hope, a sign of promise. They were there for Noah and his family; an olive branch in the beak of a dove, a bow of many bright colors. These small signs of hope and promise are there for you and me. These sprigs of hope give us the assurance that life will continue, that hope will prevail, that our God is a God of life. As we drown in a sea of TV news depicting tragedy, violence, war, political deception, and a world in turmoil, God may hold out a sprig of good news----a child raising money to help others, a church that feeds the homeless, a block party in a rough neighborhood that instills hope.

Even in the midst of the dark clouds of life's predicaments, God offers a twig of peace, a ray of light. Those who have endured childhood traumas may see on the horizon of adulthood the faint colors of an emerging rainbow. Young people today often speak of literally surviving their teen years. God offers to us teenagers who not only survive, but thrive as models of hope. God's sign of promise may come after an earth shattering divorce, as we begin to heal and create new relationships. Amid the loss of a loved one the branch of hope may be found in family and friends that become a refuge against the grief that seems to drown us in sorrow. God will always hold out to us the sprig of hope or arch over our lives a rainbow, however faint.

Whatever you have come through, endured, survived, the very fact that you are a survivor is a sign of hope. And because you have survived it may mean you are a sign of hope for someone struggling to make it through a similar life trauma. Such people, who have survived through life's turmoil have within them the bud of hope. To these hope-filled people God says, "Be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth with your kind."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Curse of Cain: Genesis 4:1-17

Recent surveys have shown that violence is the top concern in our society. We have seen too any homes cordoned off by yellow police tape, red puddles on the asphalt, and handcuffed suspects being led to the courthouse. The proliferation of handguns and assault weapons is one evidence that violence is increasing in our society. The easy access to handguns and assault weapons has been challenged by some and celebrated by others. I remember reading a newspaper article on gun control in which a gun lobbyist said that the Bible not only permits but blesses assault weapons. Larry Pratt, a church elder and executive director of Gun Owners of America said, "Consider that when Cain killed Abel, God did not ban (or register or impose a waiting period on) the ownership of whatever it was that Cain used to kill his brother." Of course, God did not impose modern gun control legislation on Cain. The argument is ridiculous. But, God knows, violence is a problem as old as Cain and Abel.

When did human violence begin? What was the original impetus to violence? If we look at the story of Cain and Abel, everything seems to have started off on the right foot. Cain and Abel were brothers. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. No reason for conflict so far. Well, some who read this story see in it an ancient rivalry that existed between shepherds and farmers. But, the original conflict didn't begin because God preferred cowboys to farmers. The ancient shepherd/farmer conflict may well be in the background of the story, but there is something else going on here.

Maybe the problem began with the offering. Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the field to God, while Abel brought the first of his flock. What else would you expect? Some would have us think that Abel's meat offering was preferable to Cain's grain or vegetable offering. Did God really prefer blood to beet juice? Or was there was something else inferior about Cain's offering? Probably not. They both sought to worship God with their best, the fruit of their labors. They both should have expected God's blessing on their gifts.

Could it be that violence began with an inner attitude? Maybe Cain gave his offering half- heartedly, begrudgingly, or with a bad attitude. Is that indicated by God's comment to Cain: "If you do well, will you not be accepted "? Some have thought that there was something not well with Cain when he made his offering to God. But, the text doesn't support such an interpretation. To be honest, there appears to be nothing in Cain or his offering that would warrant what happens next.

God accepts Abel's sacrifice and rejects Cain's. It's that simple. And that complicated. It would seem like we should lay the blame for the first act of violence at God's doorstep. God rejects Cain's offering, causing his red hot anger and his face to fall. If you were a kid and your dad accepted your brother's gift but rejected yours, wouldn't you be pissed off? It's unfair. God asks why Cain is angry and his face is on the floor. The answer is obvious. The problem lies with God, not with Cain. It comes down to God's capricious freedom. God chose Jacob over Esau. God chose Israel among all the nations. God chose to accept Abel's sacrifice over Cain's. This is the God who says, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Exodus 33: 19). We may not like it. It seems unfair. It makes no sense. Yet, in this story we are dealing with a God who is free and a life that is unfair.

But, isn't our experience something like that? Life is unfair. And violence seems to arise out of life's inequities and unfairness. Some kill to obtain what they don't have. Others use violence to redress economic and political injustices. That's life. And our human predicament cannot be easily separated from the God question. Why was Abel's offering accepted and Cain's rejected? Why does it seem like some of us are accepted and others rejected? By all appearances that seems to be the case. Some live in luxury, while others live in poverty. Some live an easy life, while others struggle to make it through another day. Some of us are born into stable families, while others are born in dysfunctional families which scar them for life. All this inequity and unfairness set us up for angry, aggressive, violent behavior. Of all the possible world's God could have created, God created one where violence was not only possible, but probable. No. Practically inevitable. So, is God totally innocent or somehow a part of the human situation that breeds violence? Whether or not we blame God, we may at least wonder if the One who is in charge of the universe is somehow behind the way things are. Life makes us wonder. The story of Cain and Abel makes us wonder. Must we, as we have often done in our interpretation of this story, lay all the blame on Cain for his anger and aggression? Our text gives no final answers, just a story that indicates life is unfair and God is free.

What we can say is that violence has been with us from the beginning. Violence is around and within all of us. We must master it. Otherwise, it will pounce on us. Cain was angry and feeling rejected. God asked him, "Why are you angry and look so sad?" As if God didn't know. "Do good and you will be accepted. If you don't do good, sin is standing at the door waiting to get in. It is a lion ready to pounce upon you." Jealousy of Abel already stands at the door of Cain's heart. Envy waits behind the bushes ready to leap on him and cause him to commit a beastly act. So, Cain invites Abel out into the field, maybe under the pretense of showing him how well his grain is growing. In a fit of rage, Cain grabs a rock or instrument to till the earth and slays Abel. His blood has forever stained the earth. The first murder has been committed.

"Oh, but we would never commit such a heinous act," we say. "That kind of evil takes a monster. It's probably from bad parenting or something." Cain's parents are our parents. We are all part of Cain's violent legacy. Like Cain's Land of Nod, our society was built upon the foundations of violence from the murderous theft of native lands to slavery. It's walls are reinforced with violence from gang drive-bys to Mortal Kombat videos. Doctor Deborah Prothrow-Smith, with Harvard School of Public Health, says, "We are a country that's infatuated with violence ... We celebrate it. We're entertained by it. We run to read about it and see it ... As I travel across the country, one thing I see pretty universally among American children is an admiration for violence." We live in the violent legacy of Cain. If we are nurtured on violence, what would you expect? We are not immune from Cain's curse.

Besides, we don't know what we might do under circumstances similar to those who committed violent acts. What if you were in Cain's sandals. What would you have done? What if you were in a situation that constantly caused you to be frustrated and angry? What if your basic human rights were denied you? Psychologist Rollo May says, "When a person has been denied over a period of time what he feels are his legitimate rights ... violence is the predictable end result." What might we be capable of if we were the ones constantly rejected, frustrated, or denied basic human respect?

I am a pacifist, who doesn't believe in corporal or capital punishment. I think of myself as pretty patient. mild tempered, and peace loving. Yet, I know that violence lurks ready to leap upon me. I have raised two children from violent homes, who in their early years knew how to frustrate the hell out of you, and I don't use the word "hell" lightly. But, I don't blame them. That's was their family legacy. I recall feeling the urge to physically abuse my wounded children out of extreme anger and frustration over their uncontrollable behavior. At times my face reddened, veins bulged, fists tightened and teeth clenched. Only by God's grace was I spared from inflicting bodily harm. But, let me tell you, the violence was within me. Overcoming it was not easy. During that time I remember having the most bloody, murderous dream. I interpreted rnv dream as my own violence within that I had to master. Haven't you ever been angry enough to want to "strangle someone" or at least want the worse to happen to them. Well, didn't I read somewhere that such anger at a brother or sister is tantamount to murder?

We are our brother's and sister's keeper. We have a responsibility for the care and well being of the human family. God's question to Cain is a question to us all: "Where is your brother? Where is your sister?" Though Cain's response is a denial. ... "Am I my brother's keeper?" .... we understand the statement as implying a classic affirmation. Yes. We are our brother's and sister's keeper. We are responsible to share our resources with those less advantaged in this life, reducing the possibility of violence. We are responsible to protect and care for those wounded by the violence of rape, abuse, and war. We are responsible to work at reducing violence and waging peace in this world. We are responsible for being reconciled. Jesus said that, if like Cain, you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that you have something against a brother, or sister, first go and be reconciled, then come and offer your gift. Reconciliation comes before worship. If only Cain had known that. If only he had believed he was his brother's keeper. But, am I really my brother and sister's keeper? There are those who seem beyond our compassion and efforts at reconciliation.

If anyone seemed worth murdering, or at least someone to reject as worthless, it was Larry Trapp. By all appearances and practices, Larry was a despicable creature. He was the grand dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Nebraska. Sitting in his apartment in a wheel chair dressed in frayed jeans, gold swastika, Hell's Angel's tattoo, red t-shirt with "White Power," and surrounded by guns and klan robe, Larry distributed racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, white supremacist literature. Hatred seeped from the pores of his skin. For years he led a campaign of terror with death threats, assassination plans, and threatening phone calls to Blacks and Jews. One of those who received a call was Jewish Cantor Michael Weisser. But, Michael was not going to be intimidated. He had learned that the heart of Jewish faith was loving your neighbor, tolerance, and non-harmful behavior. But, what he did with Larry Trapp was a shock. He not only confronted Larry during a hate call on the phone, he called back later to talk with him. Michael said to Larry, "Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something. And I wondered if I could help. I know you're in a wheelchair and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something." Michael and his wife, Julie, took dinner to Larry. Now, this is carrying that brother's keeper stuff a bit too far!

Larry was stunned, as were Michael's congregation and many African-Americans in the community, at this Jewish cantor's unconditional care and compassion. Like Cain, Larry's sin was greater than he could bear. It was a sore that needed lancing. The shell on Larry's heart eventually cracked open spilling out the thick hate and violence. It happened when Michael and Julie brought him a meal. They all ended up weeping and embracing. What he had needed all his life was someone who really cared for him and accepted him. Not only would Larry toss aside his klan robe, but he apologized to his victims and campaigned against racism and bigotry. Larry not only renounced his anti-Semitic past, but converted to the Jewish faith. Later, Larry was diagnosed with a terminal illness and the Weisser family took him into their home to care for him the last days of his life. Amazing grace! You see, Michael saw Larry as his brother. God had taught Michael that he was his brother's keeper.

What we have in the end is the maddening mercy of God. This is the staggering grace revealed in Michael Weisser and his family's care for one who did not deserve it. It is the mercy seen in God placing a mark on Cain, who did not deserve it. You see, after murdering Abel, Cain was a literally a marked man. As a murderer and fugitive, he would have been a target of vengeance and retaliation. The never ending cycle of violence had been initiated. So, God placed a mark on Cain. Many have speculated what that mark might have been. How utterly horrible and tragic that Cain's mark has been interpreted as the color of the African-American slave and as the star of David used by the Nazi's to mark Jews. Such interpretations are hateful and murderous. Really, Cain's mark was a sign of protection.

Why would God want to protect Cain? He wasn't worth it. He committed an unspeakable crime. Murder deserves murder. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. A life for a life. Capital punishment is what Cain deserved. Not protection. Inject those criminals. Gas those murderers. Enough of this liberal nonsense that protects the perpetrator and forgets the victim. What about the Abels in this world? Their blood cries from the ground to be heard. Who speaks for the Abels? Protect the murderer? It's enough to make you want to take the law into your own hands. It's enough to make you want to kill those murderers. God's mercy is maddening. It's a curse upon humanity! Why protect Cain?

Remember God's capricious freedom? God will have mercy on whom God will have mercy. God's freedom was there at the beginning of the story of Cain and Abel. It was there in the story of Larry Trapp. Here it is again. In God's protective mark on Cain. The mark points toward the gospel of grace. We have seen the mark of Cain. It appears to us as unmerited favor, undeserved goodness. God's capricious compassion. God's maddening mercy toward us. In the midst of a world that seems cruel, unfair, and unjust, we are all Abel. In the midst of a world where, though undeservedly we are recipients of God's odd goodness, we are Cain. And we are forever marked with the curse of God's grace.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Elle Shaddai: A divine feminine icon

El Shaddai is a Hebrew name for God. It is translated as "God Almighty." A more literal translation would be "God of the mountains." Shadayim, the root word for mountains, means "breasts." Thus, OT feminist scholar Phyllis Trible translates El Shaddai as "The Breasted One."

This icon originated as a divine feminine tattoo design for an African-American woman friend. I used the name of God "El Shaddai" as a feminist African divine image and feminized the "El" to "Elle." In the image the divine Elle merges into the mountains or emerges from the mountains as One with creation. The design is in an egg form to symbolize creation, new life, rebirth.

Friday, March 12, 2010

God so Loved: a divine feminine tattoo design

God is neither male nor female. God is Spirit. Therefore, we cannot create an image of God that adequately reflects God's spiritual essence. And yet, the images we have made of God throughout history have been male images (For example, Michelangelo's Creation image on the Sistine Chapel). Since we, male and female, were made in the image of God (Genesis), then if we are going to make an image of God we should be able to image God as both male and female.

Here is a feminine image of God I created for a friend, who wants such a tattoo for her next birthday, using the well known text from John 3:16: "For God so loved the world..."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Prodigal Mother: A Parable Retold

*This original story was told in a suburban Lancaster, PA church on the fourth Sunday of Lent

Before we get to the biblical text for today, I need to tell you a story. It's a story about a mother and her daughter. Possibly you may recognize them. They may be connected to this church. You'll have to let me know. That's why I want to tell you their story. There was once a mother and daughter. Their family moved to Lancaster quite a few years ago from New York. The reason they moved was because the father had died from cancer. With the mounting hospital bills, they were struggling to make ends meet living in the city. So, the mother moved back to Lancaster with her daughter, where they could be close to relatives.

The move was hard on the daughter. She had grown up in New York, with its fast pace lifestyle, bright lights, night life, plenty of things to do, a world away from Lancaster. Plus, moving while you're in high school is no piece of cake. You have to leave friends and familiar places. It's tough. When they got settled into Lancaster, they became part of a Mennonite congregation. It may have been was this one. I don't know. But, let me continue. The daughter was bored to death going to church. She whined every Sunday her mother told her it was time to leave. She never forced her daughter to go. Her mother was pretty lenient. Some say too lenient. Their relatives said the mother wasn't much of a disciplinarian. At times it seemed as if this mother let her daughter walk all over; treat her as if she wasn't even alive.

That particularly seemed to be the case when her daughter came to her one day and asked her if she could have her college savings. She wanted to leave Lancaster and move back to New York and live on her own. Most parents would have put their foot down and forbidden her to leave. But, her mom knew that she'd just run away. She'd rather give her daughter the money. At least she'd know her daughter would have a place to stay, instead of living on the streets. That would have killed her mother, and maybe the daughter as well.

Can you believe it? She went to the bank and drew out every last penny she had worked so hard for and saved, including what she got from her husband's retirement after he died. She withdrew all the money and handed over a stack of crisp, new bills to her daughter. It wouldn't be stretching the truth if we described this mother as "prodigal," if we understand its dictionary definition as "recklessly wasteful." Who of usfrugal Mennonites that we are, would do such an extravagant, act of squandering? We reuse copy paper! Who would give their child a big wad of money to run off to New York City? If your wondering how kids today got so messed up, just look at their parents!

The daughter caught a Greyhound and headed for the Big Apple. Her mom cried when the door of the bus closed. The daughter couldn't wait to take a big bite out of the city. On her first day back in New York, she found a one room apartment, if you could call it that, in a run down part of the city. There were broken bottles and old syringes laying on the sidewalk. Her apartment was a bed, bathroom, and bare walls. Cockroaches dined on the crumbs lying on the wood floor. The building had a faint smell of urine. But, she didn't want to spend all her money on rent. It was just going to be a place to crash. She had partyin' on her mind.

Her first night in the city and she was trying to hit all the clubs. She paid someone to make her a fake ID, even though she looked and dressed a lot older than she was. She loved the night life, the club scene. The stars of the night found her gyrating beneath the colored lights on the dance floor and sniffing something up her nose. Before the first rays of sun hit the tall buildings downtown, she had wallowed in pleasure and had a tattoo of a Porky Pig etched on her arm. This was the time of her life, free from all the restraints and rules of her mom. At about 6:00 am in the morning she flopped down on her bed and didn't get up all the next day. When the sun peeked through the cracks in the blinds the following day, she awoke to find her head on a pillow of warm flesh. As she focused her eyes she could see clearly the silver ring of a pierced navel.

The party scene went on for a few weeks before she noticed that her money was quickly slipping through her fingers. After only one month of club hopping, she couldn't pay her rent. Her landlord threw her out on the street. All she had was a tattered suitcase tied together with a piece of rope. The next few nights she slept in a cardboard box under an overpass. She was afraid of what might happen to her, but she had nowhere else to go. The third day, she woke to a homeless man searching through her pockets. She jumped up and yelled at him, scaring him away. The odor of stale beer floating through the morning air like a smelling salt woke her up. She headed downtown. Maybe she could panhandle enough to get a meal. She hadn't eaten in days. With no handouts after five or six hours of panhandling, she was hungry and desperate. Her belly growled to the rhythm of the passing taxis. She spotted a McDonald's and went behind the building to rummage through the trash bins. Near the bottom of one was a half-eaten burger and a watered-down coke. As unappetizing as it was, her stomach was in no mood for being picky. Her arms weren't long enough to reach inside. As she leaned into the bin, she lost her balance and fell inside with a loud crash. The smell was enough to make her gag, but she gobbled down the piece of burger and washed it down with the watery coke. With a crumpled napkin she wiped every trace of dignity from her face.

Sitting at the bottom of the trash bin, it hit her. She didn't have to live like this. There were young women selling their bodies on the street that made enough to survive. She had seen some of them eating in the better restaurants downtown. As she was thinking about food, she flashed back to the Thanksgiving meals she used to have when she was young. Mom and dad at the table. Smiling. Cornucopia centerpiece on the table. Their finest crystal china neatly set flanked by an array of spoons, forks, and knives. Tall glasses of sparkling grape juice. In the middle of the table a plump, steaming turkey stuffed with dressing. Mashed potatoes drenched in butter. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream .... mmmmmmmmm!

That's when she came to her senses. She didn't have to dine in a dumpster. She could hitchhike home to her mom. Crawling out of the bin, she began rehearsing what she was going to say. "Mom, I'm sorry I ran off. If you just give me a room to live in for a while, I'll work it off for you." She took a quarter she found in the alley and dropped it into a pay phone. "Yes, I want to make a collect call to Lancaster ... " As she waited on the phone she caught sight of a bag lady out of the corner of her eye. The woman looked a little like her mom. "Mom?" There was silence on the other end of the line. "Mom, I want to come home."

On the day her daughter was coming home from New York, the mother waited on her front porch all day long, pacing back and forth, looking both ways down the block. Her daughter was supposed to get dropped off near their brick row house. Every few minutes the mother would walk out onto the sidewalk and look both ways for any sign of a lost teenager. Her neighbor waved and she waved back, but returned to her vigil on the porch.

Just as the sun was setting and the shadows of the trees fell on the houses, this mother saw someone get out of a car and start walking down the block. She put her hand over her brow to shade the sun and strained to see if she recognized the approaching figure. The next thing you know, she's in a full sprint down the sidewalk. She doesn't care what the neighbors might think seeing her, a grown woman, running as fast as she can down the street in Lancaster. Mother and daughter come together in a big bear hug in the middle of the street. A car honks at them, but they just stand in the middle of the street hugging each other. Tears are streaming down their cheeks. "I thought you were dead, or lost in the city," her mother sobs. "Mom, I'm sorry I left home. I'f you just give me a room ... " "Hush," cries her mother, "Honey, you're alive! I thought you were dead or lost, but I've found you. All that matters now is that you're home. You're home!"

Imagine this...I get a call early this morning as I'm going over my sermon. It's this mother. She says this is her church. She claims to be one of us. Do any of you remember her? How about her daughter? You should have heard her on the phone. It would have made you either cry or shout for joy or both. This mother was bubbling over with pure joy over her daughter coming home. Now, here's the deal. This is why I told you the story. I need to know what you think. You won't believe this. Imagine. She'd like to know if she could use our church building to hold a party tonight. It's going to be a catered affair. Steaks. Caviar. Champagne. Balloons. Party horns. Streamers. A Rock band. Dancing. It's probably going to be a loud, raucous party. And get this. She's blowing her whole paycheck on this party! She doesn't sound like she's Mennonite to me. Like I told you, she's a prodigal mother, "recklessly wasteful." As reckless as a shepherd leaving his ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness to go after one stray. As wasteful as a woman throwing a shindig because she found her lost coin while sweeping.

I thought I should also tell you, the mother's invited a bunch of her daughter's "questionable" friends in from New York. Purple hair. Pierced tongues. Tight leather miniskirts. A real freak show. Now, I can understand if you don't want them in our building. Who knows what the neighbor's would think? We're a traditional, suburban church with an image to maintain. Besides, it wouldn't be good stewardship of our building, letting a bunch of outsiders use it. And a party just doesn't seem appropriate for a church. All that noise and music and dancing. Maybe we could handle something a bit more subdued and proper. I know for a fact, that neither the daughter nor her mother have been faithfully attending church like most of us here. Before we consider having outsiders come into our church and taking over what we've worked so hard to keep a certain way, maybe we ought to first have a congregational meeting and discuss it or process it through a council or write a policy or do something formal and organized. Come to think of it, we haven't even had that kind of party for ourselves, let alone for some .... some .... well, anyway. Besides, what kind of message would we be sending our children if we allowed such a recklessly wasteful mother to have a party in our church?

There's something else I forgot to ask you. Hold on to your pews. The mother wants all of us to come to the party. So, I told her I'd ask. Be honest now. Who's going to come to this party?

In Memory of Gene Stoltzfus: Founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams (1940-2010)

Gene Stoltzfus was a model peacemaker and founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a well known, innovative, risk-taking organization that has placed itself in the midst of conflictual situations and militarized zones around the world to bring peace and reconciliation (http://www.cpt.org/speakers/gene_stoltzfus. CPT grew from roots in an Anabaptist vision of active peacemaking into a worldwide ecumenical peacemaking ministry.

The Peace and Justice Support Network, which I staffed as Minister of Peace and Justice for Mennonite Church USA, honored Gene in 2003 with a Peace Pitcher award for his lifetime of work in peace and justice (http://peace.mennolink.org/articles/newsgene.html)

This prophet of peace will be sorely missed within the ecumenical peace community.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Death Angel: Tattoo Design

Watched a series of LA Ink on TV and was inspired to create my own tattoo design. Here is my "Death Angel" tattoo design.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hindu Holi-ness: the festival of colors

Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, is a celebration of the beginning of Spring observed in India. Celebrants splash each other with powdered colors and water like God, the divine artist, splashes the world with the amazing colors of Spring. This is an artist's way of celebrating the beginning of spring!

For a fuller description of the religious background of Holi go to: http://www.sankalpindia.net/drupal/festivals/holi-festival-colors