A poem to read on a vocational journey

This week in Current (West End UMC’s Wednesday night programing) we are talking about Vocation. I am interviewing two people I respect highly about their own vocational journey.

Last week I posted about my own musings on vocation. This week my mentor, Michael Williams, sent me this poem and in the email he wrote, “It came as a gift to me and I pass it along as a gift to you.” It is a gift to me a beautiful interpretation of the story of Jonah and the many ways I both miss and live into my calling.

Prophet
by Carl Dennis

You’ll never be much of a prophet if, when the call comes
To preach to Nineveh, you flee on the ship for Tarshish
That Jonah fled on, afraid like him of the people’s outrage
Were they to hear the edict that in thirty days
Their city in all its glory will be overthrown.

The sea storm that harried Jonah won’t harry you.
No big fish will be waiting to swallow you whole
And keep you down in the dark till your mood
Shifts from fear to thankfulness and you want to serve.
No. You’ll land safe at Tarshish and learn the language
And get a job in a countinghouse by the harbor
And marry and raise a family you can be proud of
In a neighborhood not too rowdy for comfort.

If you’re going to be a prophet, you must listen the first time.
Setting off at sunrise, you can’t be disheartened
If you arrive at Nineveh long past midnight,
On foot, your donkey having run off with your baggage.
You’ll have to settle for a room in the cheapest hotel
And toss all night on the lice-ridden mattress

That Jonah is spared. In the space of three sentences
He jumps from his donkey, speaks out, and is heeded, while you,
Preaching next day in the rain on a noisy corner,
Are likely to be ignored, outshouted by old-clothes dealers
And fishwives, mocked by schoolboys for your accent.
And then it’s a week in jail for disturbing the peace.
There you’ll have time, as you sit in a dungeon
Darker than a whale’s belly, to ask if the trip
Is a big mistake, the heavenly voice mere mood,

The mission a fancy. Jonah’s biggest complaint
Is that God, when the people repent and ask forgiveness,
Is glad to forgive them and cancels the doomsday
Specified in the prophecy, leaving his prophet
To look like a fool. So God takes time to explain
How it’s wrong to want a city like this one to burn,
How a prophet’s supposed to redeem the future,
Not predict it. But you’ll be left with the question
Why your city’s been spared when nobody’s different,

Nobody in the soup kitchen you open,
Though one or two of the hungriest
May be grateful enough for the soup to listen
When you talk about turning their lives around.
It will be hard to believe these are the saving remnant
Kin to the ten just men that would have sufficed
To save Gomorrah if Abraham could have found them.
You’ll have to tell them frankly you can’t explain
Why Nineveh is still standing though you hope to learn
At the feet of a prophet who for all you know
May be turning his donkey toward Nineveh even now.

My favorite lines: “How a prophet’s supposed to redeem the future, Not predict it. But you’ll be left with the question Why your city’s been spared when nobody’s different,” How I love that this poem challenges my indifference as much as it does the indifference of my city!! I look forward to the conversation tonight and hope we will unearth some of the challenges of the journey as much as joys.

Guatemala and Camu

When I think of that smell of wood and plastic trash going up in flames, my heart fills with love and that love wells up as water in the corners of my eyes. These are tears of truth, not of sadness or joy.

As I write this, it takes everything not to pick up my backpack and breath in the smell of burning that still lingers on the cloth. Yet, last night when I got home from Guatemala I washed and showered and washed again and lathered to get the smell off my skin. This morning I put lots of mouse in my hair to cover up the smell that lingered.

My backpack had almost the same exact smell when I came home from Uganda.

For me, it is a smell of truth and one that connects me deeply to the entire world. Yet, last night on my plane flight home from Atlanta to Nashville I wanted to apologize to the person next to me for the way I smelled. “I promise I don’t always smell like this,” I wanted to say — while deep inside I wished it would never go away.

Smell has a way of bringing you back to a time and place, I know there is a lot of academic research about it — but I’m not as interested in quantitative studies about smell and memory, as I am about the stories. I was talking about smell with a friend recently and he spoke of walking past a woman and the simple fumes of her perfume brought him to the time when he was first falling in love. The smell of Irish Spring soap has a similar effect on me.

Do I quickly wash off the smell of open wood fires because I am afraid to go back to the times and places where I saw women suffering from poverty and patriarchy?

Today in a class — I am auditing a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Albert Camu from Prof. Victor Judge — we discussed “The Fall.” Spoiler alert — The story is about a man who is on a bridge and watches a woman about to jump to her death — he says nothing. She jumps — he does nothing. As she screams for help, he neither says or does anything. There is a lot more to the monologue — but the man forever avoids bridges.

I’ve seen the plight of women in poverty and heard about the effects of patriarchy. I know enough to say something. I know enough to do something. I know enough to use my words and actions to say something before, during, or after she jumps off the bridge.

Today in class Prof. Judge said, “Every moment is important and has consequence. Every waking moment has a promise of change.” With my recent experience in the foothills of the volcanoes in Guatemala in the forefront of my mind — my heart erupted and tears streamed down my face. During the intermission I explained to Prof. Judge they were tears of truth. He lovingly replied, “I hoped they were not tears of unhappiness.”

I wrote in my notes:
So what am I to do? There is so much… I am willing. I can continue to organize Sunday morning class spaces (ha ha not fair — I am currently working with imagination and creativity) But (or maybe I should say AND) I am called to be on the ground, smelling of fire, eyes not only welling with the waters of truth, but also the dust from the roads blown by trucks filled with travelers and produce, the sun bringing color to my face instead of using concealer, brushing my teeth with purified water — sometimes afraid, sometimes overjoyed, sometimes at peace, but always present.

Directly after I wrote that, Prof. Judge said, “Those who remain vigilant to combat the plague are the least likely to contract it.”

If I combat poverty and patriarchy, then I am less likely to participate with it.

Hiking a mountain in San Juan, Guatemala.

The Blessed Mother Mary photographed while hiking a mountain in San Juan, Guatemala.

Freedom Towards Myself

I have a new job. I am the interim director for Wesley/Canterbury Fellowship (W/CF) at Vanderbilt University. This is the Methodist/Episcopal campus ministry. This past Thursday night was our first worship service and I left feeling so much joy for students and ministry. But these past few weeks have been extremely overwhelming!

During these first three weeks of doing my best to build relationships and get the word out about our open and loving community… nothing could be more true than this is the quote from The Spirit of Life, Jorgen Moltmann pg 201-202:

But the people who throw themselves into practical life because they cannot come to terms with themselves simply become a burden for other people. Social praxis and political involvement are not a remedy for the weakness of our own personalities. Men and women who want to act on behalf of other people without having deepened their own understanding of themselves, without having built up their own capacity for sensitive loving, and without having found freedom towards themselves, will find nothing in themselves that they can give to anyone else. Even presupposing good will and the lack of evil intentions, all they will be able to pass on is the infection of their own egoism, the aggression generated by their own anxieties, and the prejudices of their own ideology. Anyone who wants to fill up her own hollowness by helping other people will simply spread the same hollowness. Why? Because people are far less influenced by what another person says and does than the activist would like to believe. They are much more influenced by what the other is, and his way of speaking and behaving. Only the person who has found his own self can give himself. What else can he give? It is only the person who knows that he is accepted who can accept others without dominating them. The person who has become free in herself can liberate others and share their suffering.

I hope I can grow to know myself so fully that I can open space for others to be fully themselves. This is why most of the books I am reading right now are not for school but to help me hold in faith my questions and my doubts. To care for myself and then care for others. Nothing could be harder in a time where there are so many demands on my time and my life!! But I must first free myself so I can free others.

Dignity in Women’s Development

One of the most important things I learned at CSW is the empowerment of rural women is not just about putting food on the table, it’s also about dignity; listening to her voice, her decisions, and her leadership. When organizations create women’s development projects, yet control the way money is spent, the projects, even the teaching, it does not actually empower rural women.  Talking with a friend, we decided the best analogy is that of a street dance.  We gather in a circle, one person steps to the middle to dance, that person joins the circle and another person steps to the center to dance. Rural women must have the opportunity to lead the dance! The power does not lie within the US or other first world countries to “save” or “develop” a group of people. The answers for rural women were not in NYC, but in the rural areas where women are working, living, laughing, crying, and loving everyday.

People doing development work usually have good intentions, but we must evaluate how our actions are hurting a group of people. A perfect example is the Kony 2012 Campaign, which went viral recently on Facebook and Twitter.  Invisible Children’s intentions were good, but they did not see the damage they are doing by “sensationalizing” of a conflict in a whole group of people and denying dignity.

This is the voice of Rosebell Kagumire, a woman working in Uganda for peace, talking about the KONY 2012 campaign: “How do you tell the stories of Africans? You shouldn’t be telling my story if you also don’t believe I have the power to change what is going on!  This 6.5 minute video says it best:
Rosebell Kagumire YouTube

Little Plastic Baggie

Yesterday afternoon before our last delegation meeting I was in the UMW (United Methodist Women) office on the 11th floor of the Church Center talking to Christina. Tomoko San walks in and asked Christina if she will call the Salvation Army location at 14th street to see if they have a lost and found. What did you loose? I lost a small plastic bag with pearl earrings and a necklace.  As Christina looked up the number I got out my phone for Tomoko San to call.  Tomoko san English is impeccable, but she preferred that I call. So I left a message on three different numbers about the missing items and my phone number hoping someone might check and call me back.

On the way to the last event I said something like this to Tomoko san, I am so sorry to tell you this, but I think it will be a miracle if they have your jewelry! New York is a busy (translation dishonest) place and it is not likely that if someone found it they would turn it in. She understood and we agreed that her odds would be greater in a place like Japan.

In the morning I emailed one of the women whom I called the previous day.  Around 6:30pm I checked my email on my phone and the woman at the Salvation Army emailed me back, Check the lost and found on the 8th floor of the Church Center. I think I saw what you are looking for there. I was in the back of a crowded room on the 2nd floor of the Church Center listening to a panel but I couldn’t sit in my seat knowing that her items might have been in building all along!  I HAD TO run up to the 8th floor to check!!

The 8th floor was crowded with other folks listening to another panel and talking in the hallways, but I navigated through to the back room where the media registers during office hours. I looked around for something that looks like a lost and found. After searching a few cardboard boxes I found a box with a camera case, a folder or two, a hairbrush, and LOW AND BEHOLD, a small plastic baggy with pearl earrings and a necklace!!  I almost screamed. Then I thought, WOW. There is hope for the world after all.

First of all, Tomoko san was not even sure where she lost her valuables.  Second, there are thousands of women at this conference from all over the world and they are in and out of many buildings!  What are the odds that a.) someone would find it b.) they would turn it in c.) the person they turned it into would put it in lost and found d.) it would not go missing from lost and found and e.) we would be able to find the lost and found!

After the panel I said to Tomoko san, “Do you know the highlight of my day?” “No, what?” Look what I found. Gasp, THANK YOU!… big hug! and we were both laughing. I told her about email and my discovery.  We agreed, Never underestimate a group of women! and that It really was a miracle!!

Where is God in CSW56?

My days at CSW are filled with events hosted by NGOs, UN, and Ecumenical organizations.  NGO/CSW arranges a schedule of events happening daily.  The “official” CSW56 events at the UN offered 2 passes to the United Methodist Women and I will be able to attend one of those meetings on Wednesday from 1-3pm.  So, myself and the other delegates choose where to go each day based on the title and sponsor of the side-event.

Most of the events are housed in the Church Center for the United Nations.  In the 1960s a large group of United Methodist Women purchased and built a 12 story building across from the UN.  These women (and male counterparts) organized with the hopes of eradicating war and assisting UN peace keeping operations.  They did not name the building United Methodist Women United Nations Building, but “The Church Center” and it houses ecumenical organizations working on global social justice such as Women’s Mission Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Church Women United, Lutheran World Federation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian International Office and the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.

At the events I attended I heard stories about and from rural women.  Each panel is a bit of an emotional roller coaster.  It is common to hear first hand stories articulating: “sexual violence is worse in the rural areas,” “women are still regarded as weak and unable to learn,” “girls are not educated,” “girls are not allowed to celebrate their birthday,” “women are scared of their husbands and isolated from relationship,” “women are beaten and sexually harassed in the fields,” “women can not own land,” “women are excluded from formal and informal legal systems”

Yet I also hear about “increased agricultural production through organic farming,” “girls who are allowed to go to school instead of being married at a young age,” “women who are pregnant at a young age are allowed to go back to school,” “public disobedience in women’s groups advocating to own land,” “integrated community based adult education,” “women groups rear goats or keep bees to help them in farming and economic stability.”

My passion for women’s work grows with each story and panel.  Yet, I am frequently overwhelmed.  I start to wonder, “Where is God?”

In the panels, I do not hear God or religion frequently mentioned, even through the building and organizations have religious connections.  I wish we could name and discuss different interpretations of God which have oppressed women.  Seems like we don’t invite God to the conversation, just in case the patriarchal, hierarchical, and distant God shows up to put us in submission.  I wish I could shout from the empire state building, “THAT GOD DOESN’T EXIST!” I wish we could speak about God’s embrace of all that we are as demonstrated through the incarnation using the language of vulnerability to address the horrific assaults of sexual violence, discrimination, abuse, and oppression.

On the night when God was the most vulnerable, Jesus ate the Passover meal with his friends.  “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ (Matthew 26:26).”  By offering the bread, Jesus invites a violent and broken world to be included in his body.  Women who suffer from violence need to be in a community that incarnates God’s acceptance and vulnerability.  I believe through the incarnation, God is with those who suffer and invites all to be part of the healing body of Christ.

So the answer to my question, “Where is God?” God is in the suffering and the solution.  There are no limits to God’s love and vulnerability.  Yet, this interpretation of God is not shared by shouting from a tall building, it is communicated by listening to stories, giving hugs, releasing tears, bursting into laughter, and sharing lives.

Empowerment Theatre

Crazy how my loves are connecting — women’s empowerment and theatre!

My new friend Ana leads three types of theatre to educate and involve rural families to agrarian reform and promote alternatives to agribusiness in Brazil.  The first type of play is what she calls “political” theatre where her team of volunteers with MST landless workers movement writes plays educating families on the injustice of land grabbing and empowering families to reclaim rights to land.  1% of land owners have more than 50% of land.  The agribusiness corporations buy a plot of land in the middle of rural family farms and push out local farmers.

The next type is called “forum theatre” where a group or community addresses a specific specific, oppressive situation and improv a play.  When the play is acted out they ask for volunteers from the audience to react the play trying to have a different result.  For example, they might act out the life of an indigenous girl who is not able to get education because her father does not educate boys, in addition to the fact that she speaks a native language and would not be able to keep up in classes.  There is someone who is cast as each person who has a stake in the story: the girl, mother, father, siblings, teacher, government, etc. and the actors can bring in people as they improv.  Despite the serious issues, the point of this type of drama is to be overly dramatic and fun.  It allows a group of people to think critically about the systemic issues, share in the story of another person, and find solutions in community.

The last type of theatre (and possibly my favorite) is called “invisible theatre.”  Ana described a time where she and a few actors got in line for tickets at a train station.  She mentioned to her neighbor in line about how she thought that the tickets were overpriced.  This allowed the person in line to address their concern with rising train ticket prices.  A few other “actors” in line also expressed their concern.  Before long, there were policemen actively watching the whole line.  She says it can be a form of “public disobedience,” but it allows people to address racism, sexism, and oppression of the poor in powerful and real ways.  My friend, Tomoko, from Japan had wide, excited eyes when she explained invisible theatre.  I said to her, “Can you imagine this in Japan?!” If you know Japanese culture, public disobedience quite taboo, she answered, “No, but I want to try it!”  I answered, “Me too!”

I may or may not gripe next time I’m in the food isle of my supermarket wondering why none of the food is locally grown or ask the butcher if my chicken ever saw daylight.  But now that I met Ana and heard about her work, it makes me want to write some type of play educating Vanderbilt students about the University investing in land grabbing in Africa.

Orientation for CSW with the UMW Delegates

Today I took a tour of the United Nations in English and I was the only person from the States.  We were our own kind of United Nations except we were all women and less than 1/3 of the ambassadors to the UN are women.

YET, I was overwhelmed with the experience and hope in the room sitting with the women chosen to take part in the United Methodist Women’s delegation.

My roommate is from Kosovo and is the chair of one of the largest NGOs in her country, Kosovo Women’s Network. There is a woman from Japan who trains grassroots rural community leaders at the Asian Rural Institute. There are two women from the Philippines, one was a founding member of AMIHAN, Federation of Peasant Women, and both work with this organization to train rural women.  Another woman is the director for the United Methodist Women in Sierra Leone.  One of the women works in Brazil with the Landless Movement. A woman from Zambia was able to train at the Asian Rural Institute and now works in her home country with the Ecumenical Development Foundation to train women and youth in organic farming and programs to rehabilitate street kids.

I hope to tell you all their names and more about their stories soon! (I have intentionally left their names out because I’m not sure if they would want to be mentioned on my blog.)

As an introduction to each other we had a large map of the world on the floor.  Our task was to trace our roots to rural locations around the world.  The staff at UMW also participated in the activity.  I was intrigued by the primary reason the women moved from a rural location to a city was for education.  Many told stories of great obstacles, as women, to pursue education.

My rural roots trace back to my 3rd generation Floridian status.  I can image Florida’s rural marsh which my grandparents experienced, what I can not imagine is a life without the opportunity for education.  Higher education was something assumed for me since birth and at 28 I will graduate with a masters.  I am struck with the privileged not only for education, but also to be amongst some of the most brilliant women in the world!

Thou Shall Connect with Your Inner Artist

Inspired by my best friend Jaime and her blog entry Thou Shall Not Snooze During Lent, I will write about my plans for the season of Lent.  This year I plan to “give up” my constant critique and intellectualizing in my personal devotion.  I was inspired by a book I have yet to read–but it’s on the top of the list–”Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag and my own need to rejuvenate the artist in my Biblical interpretation.  So my lenten goals are as follows:

Read “Reaching Toward Easter” this year’s Lenten Devotional published by the United Methodist Upper Room not with critical eyes but connecting with the Holy Spirit.  I also sent the book to my mom for us to read it together.

Read the book of Romans at least twice as I would poetry and not as a hermeneutical approach.  I might even break up the words in poetry format so that I am forced to read them differently.

We’ll see how well this goes… what are your plans?!

Constructive Theology Reflections

We write short reflections on the readings for my constructive theology class… this reflection is on chapter 8 in The Spirit of Life by Jürgen Moltmann:

The society in which I operate, tells their successful stories through the lens of individualism and achievement.  The successful woman is the one who, through no help of anyone else, rises to the top through education, status, and achievement, in addition to having a loving and adoring family.  Moltmann states that Wesley’s message was to an “industrial society is: ‘produce more – consume more’. But today the cost incurred by this maxim is greater than the profit.”  I do not see any examples in my own society of any “cost incurred” being too great for the “profit” of success.  Even elementary students berate themselves and destroy their bodies through the volition of their parents to “get ahead.”

Moltmann demands a new metaphor for today’s Christians.  He proposes connecting humans to the “web of life” writing against our individualism.  Many of his metaphor maintains their relevance for today, but I do not agree with the idea that we must start with the problems of our society and discover a Christian message that will solve, fix, or even heal them.  Western society is individualistic, violent, and suffering from death, but we hear enough about destruction in political campaigns, do we need to hear it from our pulpits!?  The Holy Spirit is a creative energy, which gives freedom from fear.  Creative energy occurs when people gather to create, like a play or movie; each person works on their particular role in community to put on a production for a gathered community.  The Holy Spirit is not like a political campaign that targets an enemy and rallies people through fear to take a side.

Like Jesus, the church must name hurt and oppression in the world, but healing comes through naming people who are suffering as blessed (Matthew 5:1-11).  I propose we reverse the question: “For what sicknesses of our time will the Christian life prove to be healing?” and begin with “How do we share healing in Christ?”

I continue to reflect on how to share love instead of fear in our churches, speaking for instead of against something.  There is not an easy fix to my ponderings… but I will like digging a little through Bart:

“That man is against God is important and must be taken seriously. But what is far more important and must be taken far more seriously is that in Jesus Christ God is for man. And it is *only* in light of the second fact that the importance and seriousness of the first can be seen.”  – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2, 154.