Disaster, LGBT, LGBTQ, Loss, Prayer

After the massacre, a prayer

Holy God,

We pray for the queer community,
frightened by the massacre in Orlando,
wondering why living their lives
as the people you made them to be
put a target on their backs.

We pray for our queer children,
gay, lesbian, bi, trans,
already afraid, careful of danger,
some suspicious of religion,
doubtful of us and of you.

We pray for the Latino community,
reeling from the loss of so many of those killed,
coming to grips with the double bias
suffered by queer people of color,
haunted by the shooter’s choice of Latin Night for his attack.

We pray for the survivors of the shooting
for their healing,
and for a sense of your presence,
and for the friends and families
grieving a terrible loss.

We pray for your church,
that we might all come to grips
with the way we have treated others,
that we might not be silent but instead
speak against hate and proclaim your love
and enact your justice.

Forgive those who will not speak
because they are afraid.

Forgive us when we are afraid.

Bring us to a new understanding:
all your children are precious to you.
Prevent us from categorizing others
in ways that give us lenience
to look the other way.

Help us, Lord, to see the world through your eyes,
to recognize that your kingdom is right here and right now,
to live in your love in our relationships with all we meet.
Remind us that wherever we live,
however we pray and whoever we love,
we are yours. Amen.

(This prayer was composed for a Vigil Service
at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church.)

Miranda quote at MPC

Disaster, Disaster Relief, Orientation, The Inner Landscape

The Storm (Throwback Thursday)

The Storm, written by students from Biloxi.
The Storm, written by students from Biloxi.

Our puppy, Teddy, has decided that books are the best chew toy. We’ve caught him several times in recent days surreptitiously removing a book from the bottom of our big Ikea shelf system in the living room. He started with coffee table books, lying down to gnaw the corners of volumes also recumbent due to their extreme height. Then he managed to drag a picture book out and across the floor, and he hit the mother lode: photographs of a post-Katrina trip to Mississippi tucked inside the pages of “The Storm.”

I am in one of those pictures, standing with a small group of children, outside their church, Handsboro United Methodist, where I offered pulpit supply and emergency coverage as a small gesture of support for a pastor on the Gulf Coast, ten days off to keep recovering from the physical and emotional damage of wind and water and loss. Months had gone by and great mounds of debris had been hauled away, but houses remained catty-corner to their original addresses while the people who had lived in them still sought safety.

With some of the children of Handsboro United Methodist Church, January 1, 2006.
With some of the children of Handsboro United Methodist Church, January, 2006.

The children are holding gifts sent by the people of Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC, where I was pastor. I traveled to Mississippi with a backpack full of gifts, tucked in the folds of a prayer shawl for their pastor.

In the picture, I’m wearing a dress from LLBean; I got it at a rummage sale for $3.00, at a church where I filled in just after seminary, a real score because it was unworn. That’s a pair of Birkenstock women’s loafers originally purchased for my oldest son when he was at that awkward size between boys’ shoes and men’s, worn by me for many years, through numerous re-heelings, re-solings. I wore a ponytail because a retired colleague’s wife said my hair looked unprofessional around my shoulders, but I kept it long to save money on haircuts.

I remember many things about that trip, the things I saw and many of the people I met and the stories they told me. I cannot forget the people who literally clung to tree branches to save themselves, who lost their brothers, or their dogs, or their homes, or even just their sense of direction.

It’s much harder to remember being someone who tried so hard to be so many things to so many people without leaving an imprint, who tried so hard to be ordinary and good and acceptable.

I want to tell her, “You have no idea of the storms that are coming. You will feel like a house off its foundation. You will learn what it’s like to perch precariously, clinging to what remains.”


And then I might whisper to her, “But keep hanging on, dear one, because beyond the storm there is hope. In the recovery from the storm, there is kindness, and love you won’t recognize at first. Don’t let go.”

Disaster, Forgiveness, Mothering, Politics

On my ball cap

imageLast week, while the world focused on Boston, I drove to another part of Massachusetts with my high school Senior daughter. At our destination, we celebrated her college choice with a trip to the bookstore to purchase flag swag for the whole family. I came away with a ball cap clearly identifying me as a “Smith College Mom.”

Meanwhile, two other ball caps drove the search for the Boston Marathon bombers. The white cap, in particular, stood out in photos. In a scene out of the movies, the FBI and other authorities gathered in a hotel to scour thousands of images and videos from private surveillance cameras, professional and amateur photographers, and the offerings of ordinary people much like me who can’t stop snapping pictures with their phones. In this time-stamped world, some picture would surely show enough to make a case. Some image would reveal the perpetrator’s identity.

My identity is multi-fold. I am a Christian pastor (UCC flavor), a writer, a wife and mother, a Bernese Mountain Dog obsessive, a knitter of mostly socks, a Virginian by birth, an adoptee, a recovering Southern Baptist, a coffee drinker, a lesbian latecomer, a lover of books and music, a Volvo owner, a registered Democrat and a soon to be Smith College mom. Observing me on last week’s trip to Northampton might have provided insight into a few of these things. I drove the Volvo. I bought the ball cap. I shopped at WEBS, America’s Yarn Store. I pretty much chased down a woman walking a Bernese puppy.

If you asked my new neighbors in Pennsylvania about me, they might be able to get as far as the Volvo.

Since last week, we’ve heard stories from classmates and neighbors, car repair clients, guys at the gym. We’ve seen school pictures and boxing profiles and heard about a scene made at the mosque. In Cambridge, people proud of their diverse community cannot understand. They include everyone. There is so much variation of language and culture, religion and national origin. How could this happen?

We don’t know all the pieces. I left some off my list: raisin hater, New York GIANTS fan, trained Interim Minister, short, grey-haired, brown-eyed. On a hot dog, I like all the condiments. My ears are pierced, but it took more than one try.

Do you have a better picture of me now?

When I heard the news on Patriot’s Day – there’s another thing, for 25 years I lived in the only other state that celebrates it – when I heard the news, I first thought, “Please, whoever did this, let them not be Muslim.

Please, O God. Let it be someone else. Their perceived otherness is too easy, too reflexive and accustomed. Let it be a man whose wife left him for a marathoner, or a faux-Baptist or a white supremacist. We could identify with them instead of running the risk of condemning a whole religion. We could question our culpability, our resentments and prejudices and past injuries, all the things that can influence human behavior toward darkness.

For a short time, I felt close to the situation. I listened to the Thursday night press conference on NPR, in my Volvo, driving home from Smith. When I heard photos would be released, that they would be pictures of two young men, I wondered for a long, hard minute what it would be like to see my son in such a picture.

I have a son in Boston, age 22, studying at New England Conservatory. (There is no ball cap for a conservatory mom.) He was on the Orange Line with his clarinets, A and B-flat, when the bombs exploded. When he arrived at school, getting off the T at Mass Ave, he heard the news. His cellphone didn’t work, so we messaged on Facebook.

A few days later, for a long, hard minute, I pictured my son’s face. I had a heart for some other mother.

imageSoon we heard words associated with that mother’s family: Chechnya, Dagestan, places I’ve heard of but needed Google Earth to locate for sure. I hear Chechyn and remember a rebellion against the Soviet Union. I hear Chechnya and think violence. Despite my sympathy for people formed by countries where violence is so daily it is hardly news — imagine that — despite my sympathy for their suffering,I feel immediately free to take a big step back. Her cap says Marathon Bomber Mom. Not mine.

This change, this freedom, comes at a primal level, the one where I considered my own child’s safety last Friday morning, texting him before 6 a.m. to say the T was not running, learning he was already halfway to the station, breathing deeply again when he returned to his apartment. I would do anything to protect him, just as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s mother is trying to do in a press conference from Dagestan today.

In my higher mind, I continue to wish the bombers were not young Muslim men. I think about how it feels to have your name mispronounced, an experience familiar to me. I listen to Robin Young’s nephew talk on “Here and Now” about his high school friend from Cambridge Rindge and Latin; I see the picture of the two boys dressed up for prom. I reflect on the desire to celebrate his capture, certainly understandable and especially in Watertown, and the celebration of law enforcement. I feel relief that the tone of the local conversation is less about Islam than one might expect. I note the uniquely local ritual acts, Neil Diamond’s appearance at Fenway Park and the Red Sox in their uniforms proudly and simply reading Boston.

imageI wonder if either of the brothers ever wore a Red Sox cap?

I ponder the very small differences between first century Jews and Samaritans, and how from those small differences grew an abiding hatred. Jesus told a story about a Samaritan, encouraging his listeners to look beyond the identifying marks that bias us to the actual hearts of people.

It’s hard to make ourselves want to look into the hearts of young men who set their backpack bombs down next to children. I can’t pierce that darkness. It’s so easy to condemn reflexively. People I know to be intelligent and thoughtful Christians murmur about Islam, “I don’t like the attitude toward women.” “Isn’t there something … violent … there?”

But wait! Isn’t there something violent about many practitioners of *our* faith? Aren’t their people wearing our team colors who also oppress women? I don’t like to be identified with them anymore than imams in Boston want to be identified with the Tsarnaev brothers.

After a week of listening to news and commentary, here’s what I know about the young man in the white cap. He is 19, and in the hospital. He is in terrible, terrible trouble for committing a horrific act while automated cameras unwittingly made a record of it. His identity will forever be Murderer, Terrorist, Bomber.

I admit, I find it hard to pray for the young man in the white cap and his mother. I’m interested in the psycho-social mysteries that beg for solving. Deservedly disgruntled immigrants? They wouldn’t be the first. Displaced persons who never found a sense of home? Sleeper agents? Pursuing these theories keeps me at a distance, and that dark distance of perceived differences breaks the world in pieces.

I find it hard to pray for him, for his dark heart. If he knew what he was doing — how could he not know what he was doing? Yet the hope of forgiveness extends to him, by God’s grace.

My heart is pierced, but it took more than one try. God can pierce our darkness. Forgiven. It would look pretty smug on a ball cap, but it’s assured for all who open their hearts to God. That’s my hard-won prayer for Dzhokhar, that someday he will wear a different cap. I have a picture of it in my head, a white cap with red letters, a sign of the hope and grace we all need, an identity God grants to every one of us.

(Also posted at There is Power in the Blog.)

Disaster, Easter 4C, Good Shepherd Sunday

Things We Cannot Unsee

I’ll admit it. I’m a news junkie when disaster strikes. I don’t watch a lot of TV at other times, and not when younger children are around. But when the coast is clear, I cannot turn it off. On the evening of 9/11, my then-15-year-old insisted on it. “Why are you watching this? They just show the same things over and over.”

There’s something compels me. I suspect I’m looking for a crumb of reason in the unreasonable, a word of sense in the insensible, a thread of comprehension in the incomprehensible.

I had been watching for just a few minutes when I said aloud, “Oh, whoever did this timed it for the ordinary runners to be coming by.” When FBI profiler Clint van Zandt said exactly the same thing on MSNBC an hour later, did I feel better? No. I felt sadder. But I kept listening.

I’m trying to understand. It’s a coping technique for a crisis. It makes the time go by until the shock passes. It might be better to turn off the TV and cry, I realize that. But that feels dangerous and helpless, and I want to be informed and useful. I’m actually not watching most of the time. I’m listening to the talking, not looking at the images.

Last night, I got in bed, alone because kathrynzj is on a mission trip being actually useful, and instead of closing my eyes, I kept reading the Twitter feed and the Facebook newsfeed, and the live blogs for the Boston Globe and the New York Times (Boston Marathon stories free from both, now! for a limited time!). Real journalists are pretty good about warning readers away from  graphic images, but self-described social media stars don’t have rules, and tweets only have 140 characters, and who knows why people do what they do, but I clicked on a link, and I cannot unsee what I saw when the next window opened.

I expected a story, because I was looking for a story. I think words will solve something.

I knew better than to click on anything that labeled itself twitpic or anything  similar.

But there it was, on a screen held close to my face, an image I cannot unsee.

a puzzlement
a puzzlement

Now, seeing it is nothing compared to living it. In parts of the world where these things happen more often, average folks are looking at the gruesome pictures and not holding back, because they’ve seen horror in the street, maybe in the front yard, and they are hardened to it. I don’t want to see these things. I actually can’t take them in very well. I’m a word person. I was looking for words, but I realize that all my efforts to gain some intellectual understanding of the events of yesterday, all the theories and the family stories and the eventual solution to the puzzle we will someday hear will do nothing to change them.

Tonight’s news featured a mother talking about how wonderful her daughter was, her daughter who is now dead.  I find this excruciating, the testimony of grieving mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. Maybe it makes things real for them in a way that nothing else can? Maybe the attention of the world makes them feel they are not alone. I don’t know. I do know I cannot unsee them, unfeel them. They make me look at the giant jigsaw puzzle of currently indistinguishable pieces. They make me feel what happened instead of trying to listen to it gingerly.

I wonder what drives the people who do these things, what words are in their heads, what images are in their minds. What is it they cannot unfeel, what is it they cannot unsee that drives them to destruction?

This is the place where I should preach, isn’t it, where the essay turns to God, where I refer you to Revelation and the wiping away of every tear, or to John and the notion that sheep who actually hear Jesus’ voice would never do such things, but I’m not there yet. It’s trustworthy that I will be, at some point, in that Revelation place, or walking through the valley of shadow fearing no evil in Psalm 23, and yes, these are the texts this week.

But I always have to try and solve it myself first.

I don’t recommend this strategy.

Good Shepherd
Adé Béthune’s Good Shepherd

Better to turn to the other words, to murmur the version you remember from your grandmother’s funeral, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shalt fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

Actually, just typing them comforted me, so much that I’m not going to check and be sure I got the King James Version exactly right. There is some comfort in knowing them, in an illogical sense of connection to uncounted women and men and children who have done their crying out to the same incomprehensible God who we try to size down to a shepherd, knowing that somewhere, someone else felt comforted, too.

I want to think it helps more than telling a story on TV. But maybe television testimonials are the Psalms of Lament for the 21st century, the rite of mourning that makes us part of the community.

The one I loved was kind and lovely and thoughtful and fun. 

Why, Lord, why?

The end of her life came too soon.

Why, Lord, why?

He never did a thing to hurt anyone.

Why, Lord, why?

I cannot understand what’s happened here.

Lord, where are You? 

Why is Your world so terrible and so beautiful, 

all at the same time? 

Where are You?

Have we done too many things You cannot unsee?

Disaster, Living in This World

Still in Recovery

You would think, wouldn’t you, that after two years and four months things on the Gulf Coast would be back to normal, but they are not.

I spent a good bit of today in the car with St. Casserole, touring many of the places I saw two years ago and last year, and while there is a good bit of progress, there are many places where it’s hard to believe so much time has gone by with so little change. Sometimes those contrasts exist right next to each other: the huge new casino hotel next door to the cleared lots that used to hold houses, the devastated town of Pass Christian as the gateway to the new Bay St. Louis Bridge, the shiny car dealership on one side of the I-1o and the still-empty ruined apartment complex just on the other side.

We’ve talked a lot today about why it works out so differently for some people than others. Some people are better-resourced or more skillful at working the system. Some people are just plain lucky. They got their insurance money, or didn’t need to wait for it. Others, meanwhile, fill out one more form for the SBA and wonder if there will ever be an end to the post-Katrina waiting.

This kind of recovery ought not have to be for a lifetime.

The friend we had lunch with yesterday seemed to feel people were healing now, finally. She reported a post-Katrina baby boom, the kind of thing usually seen nine months after a tropical storm with its attendant power outages. This time it did not come, she told us, until people got out of their FEMA trailers and back into their homes.

But of course there are still a minority living in the trailers. And again they are the least-resourced people, and I can only imagine how hopeless it feels to be living in one of the FEMA trailer parks, a good arm-stretch from the neighbors.

At a party tonight, I met local folk, volunteers and a woman who relocated here to work for the Red Cross. That woman expressed concern that by March the money will run out for some agencies, and those agencies will close. She told us that she feels she has done little, and that the need is still so great. But I said to her, "In the grand scheme of things, it may feel that way. But I doubt the individuals you have helped would say that."

It’s nearly 2008. I want to live in a better world, in a place where the money we give goes to the places we mean for it to be sent, in a place where people can hold a thought for others and continue to pray, give and volunteer. The waves that washed through these towns contained countless drops of water. No one drop could have done all this damage, and no one act will make things right. Like the Red Cross worker, I feel my contributions are small, but I
know that it is through the combined efforts of many, many people that
the recovery will end some day.

Have you been to the Gulf Coast since the hurricane? Have you found a
way to give in support of those who are still in recovery? I hope you
will. I hope you will.


Reflections on the Gulf Coast

A year ago I got off a plane and looked beyond the security gate and recognized a friend I had never met before. She showed me her world and welcomed me into her family. I knew the day I left that I needed to go back again.

Last Friday I went with St. Casserole to Bay St. Louis. When I visited last year, it was part of the big disaster tour on which Mr. C drove me, a trip that also took us to Waveland and Pearlington. The immensity of the damage brought forth a bad word, for which I apologized, and Mr. C graciously assured me that some sights required strong words.


That’s what we were looking at, the remains of Beach Boulevard. I could only say it looked like a fireplacein’ bomb hit it. (Click on the images to see a bigger version at Flickr.)

Beach Blvd. Bay St. Louis

It looks better now. Thank God. I had to get out of the road to let cars go by. They are rebuilding the Highway 90 bridge.

How do we cope when life holds disaster, tragedy, or even big changes?

new McDonald's in Waveland

We look to the Golden Arches.

Mockingbird Cafe

We find our way to the new cafe for a cup of really good coffee and a beautiful sandwich.

We do whatever makes life feel, even for a minute, normal.

One of my church members lost everything in a house fire many years ago. What made it possible to go on? A friend offered up the home of a family member wintering in Florida. My church member, her husband and their three young children moved into it and lived there for three months. I asked her how she managed? She had to get up each day and take care of the children, she said, and the things she couldn’t do, she had to let other people do for her. The tasks were simply too immense to take on alone.

I look back on my trip of a year ago and feel I didn’t do very much. I preached a couple of sermons, something I do all the time. I walked some dogs, not exactly an infrequent occurrence in my life. I watched and listened.

On this second trip I watched and listened again. I saw the houses of the rich rebuilt quickly, and the houses of the less well off still waiting for owners who may never return. I saw the work done by church groups, tireless and constantly replenished. I saw emptiness where homes should be. I saw new businesses and old ones that will never return. I heard stories of the strain the storm caused, both in its initial trauma and in its aftermath of displacement and deprivation. Divorces, murders, quieter suffering remain part of the landscape along with broken fences and blue tarp roofs and FEMA trailers.

I reflected on how spoiled I am by good coffee and high speed Internet.

RevGals in the grotto

Mostly, I rejoiced in a friendship made possible by the mysterious power of the Internet, begun on a snowy day when I had nothing better to do than click, click, click and discover other clergywomen who blogged. I want to think God worked this out somehow, but then I find I am giving credit for the good while wanting to excuse God for the hurricane. However it works, I am thankful for St. Casserole.