Christina Kukuk | Writer, Preacher, Spiritual R&D

finding Life in the thick places

Can We Talk about “The Media”?

Journalists are equal parts cynic and rabid patriot. Most own a well-worn pocket Constitution. Ask them. I bet they’ll be able to tell you right where it is. They’ll have the First Amendment memorized and are liable to recite it to you, unsolicited, with more reverence than the Lord’s Prayer. They know a constitutionally protected representative democracy makes their jobs possible in the first place.

Reporters and journalists are employees working a job.

I was one.  And I studied law, ethics, American history, economics, sociology, even cults and statistics in order to get that degree and work that job. I’m not a political party. I’m a human.

Pocket versions of the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution. I actually own two. Note the highlights and marginalia.

Any sweeping generalization you make about “journalists” includes me. (At least, it did when I reported in 2000 how Ameritech cited unseasonable June snow storms as an excuse for leaving elderly residents of Ohio with no working phone for weeks.*) Today, you’d include Gregory Korte trying to cover this completely wacky White House, Kevin Necessary spending six months illustrating visually the lives of an immigrant family living in Cincinnati, Rachel Dissell pressing for open records and shaming the city of Cleveland with the simple fact there is still a backlog of unprocessed rape kits! (This is me unabashedly name-dropping some much-cooler former classmates and co-workers.)

Journalists work in media. But can we get clear about something?

“The media” is not ruining your country, though it feels like that sloppy claim keeps coming from all sides. “The Media” this. And “The Media” that. The media are “trying to divide us.” The media “aren’t telling the truth.” Even before the scandalous White House Correspondent’s Dinner earlier this year, I was begging to set the record straight:

“The Media” is not a thing.

I’d be taking a futile swipe at an old, dead horse to point out that noun is plural. Even the Associated Press style guide now accepts “the media” can serve as a single noun. And still the media are not a singular thing. There are a million kinds and variations.

The only blanket claim you can make about “the media” is that they are businesses trying to turn a profit, or in a few non-profit cases, to break even if they can. Their product is your eyeballs, your clicks, your shares, your minutes on their page. (Your subscriptions usually do not pay the bills. Think of that more as a co-pay for knowledge or entertainment.) They are selling your attention, to advertisers in most cases, and this was true even before our current digital age. Strategies, of course, vary. The Silicon Valley adage holds: If a product is free, you can be sure that you are the product.

Some media hold nobler views of their product than others and create it with varying degrees of virtue and commitment to the public good.

But “the media” and journalism are not the same thing. The “media” include everything from Fox News and CNN to NPR and Democracy Now to your local paper to the podcast you listen to and the online articles you read to TIME magazine and the underground ‘zine. “Media” include Roxane Gay’s powerful “Unruly Bodies” channel on Medium and Tomi Lahren’s Twitter feed (help us, Jesus). All cable news classifies as “media,” but whether it swings right or left, the majority of us sort it into the box of occasionally misleading and sometimes dangerous entertainment rather than journalism.

It’s true corporate ownership and cable news products changed the stakes in the mass communication game. Blogging, social media, and citizen journalists changed it yet again.

But you aren’t left defenseless in a cosmic flood of information with no compass to sort out fact from fiction, propaganda from public relations spin.

Allow me to introduce you to:  Your local journalist.

I realize it feels like they’re nearing extinction. (Kudos those trying to create an AmeriCorps for journalism)

Many are still working today, and very hard. Their basic agenda remains the same: to ask who, what, where, when, why and how something happened or will – and to verify the answers as best they can from multiple reliable sources.

Journalism is how we know sitting President Richard Nixon broke the law and were able to remove him. Journalism is how we found out Flint’s water levels were poisoning children, but the State of Michigan was saving a few bucks so the politicos didn’t mind. Journalism is what finally dislodged a backlog of rape kits when a city’s inability to see and believe women allowed Anthony Sowell’s horror house to exist as long as it did.

The Sinclair media scandal showed with disturbing clarity how unaccountable corporate ownership of news outlets means bad news for citizens. Tyrants always discredit or buy out the press. That’s why a good journalist will decline to accept as much as a free mug from a source.

Reporters are people, fallible and finite human beings, your family and neighbors, doing a job that can help you. You can help them, too. Here are my five suggestions:

  • Share sources
  • Point out factual errors (so they can be corrected) and the subtler biases, too.
  • Give them good tips to begin with (you can even do it anonymously – they still have to verify multiple sources)
  • Know who owns the media source you’re sharing online. And if you can’t tell, that’s a bad sign.
  • Thank your local journalist when they do a good job. It’s grueling work dogged by constant downsizing, unpaid furloughs and increasing public hostility.

More than anything, please stop using “the media” or “journalists” as class-action pejoratives. Because you’re talking about me, your daughter, your sister, your neighbor, your niece, your pastor. (Okay that last one is rare, but Venn diagrams comparing clergy and journalism careers might surprise you.)

Journalism has always been dangerous. But I used to believe that true only in other countries.

This past year, my own extended family – people who supported my degree, celebrated my first job, congratulated my past reporting successes – shared memes declaring that journalists are trying to destroy our democracy and linked to faux news sites hawking t-shirts that suggest my political orientation is a disease. I don’t think they meant to hurt me, personally. But that’s what this anti-journalist rhetoric does over time.

An entire room of hardworking U.S. journalists got killed earlier this year. That’s why I’m making this plea personal: When you state or share something that begins with “The media…” take great care. Please don’t forget your humanity. Or mine.



*I’d link to these, but the old articles are no longer archived by the newspaper online

“Well, It Isn’t Junk to Me”

Between the two of us, the only grandparent we’d ever really known. We surprised her in this picture. One of her favorite shades of pink.

A Eulogy for Elizabeth Annabelle “Betty” Bowers Hange, Feb. 29, 1920 — June 15, 2018

I’m not sure what epitaph will be engraved with the artist’s palette Grandma picked years ago for her grave marker, but this would be my choice.

I heard Grandma say it more than once when extended family members (read: daughters-in-law) disparaged the piles of seemingly useless materials she saved.

The piles got completely out of control: stacks of foam meat trays in not just white, but blue, green, yellow, and pink; empty spools bare of thread; buttons, clothespins (especially the old fashioned kind), empty baby food bottles and their caps, bits of cloth, yarn, ribbon and thread. She collected natural materials, too: dried thistles and milkweed pods, money plant, gourds.

These worthless things became craft projects, costumes, floral arrangements. She flooded the entries to the local County Fair with milk-pod interpretations of “The Owl and the Pussycat” or “Alice’s Wonderland.” Once, when she broke her leg falling into a hole the dogs had dug between the shed and the back-porch door, she gave her ample plaster casts a second life. Turned on end, with an extra bit of paper mache and paint, they made the best camels I have ever seen grace a home porch Nativity crèche.

“Well, it isn’t junk to me,” Grandma would say.

Perhaps it was her childhood experience of the Depression.

Perhaps it was an illness or a disorder. We do have a few on that side, and whole rooms and passageways in the family homestead became barely passable. The producers of “Hoarders” might have had a field day. It gave her grown children fits.

But for a grandchild wandering through the menagerie of color, shape and texture, it was a magical realm over which she reigned in jewel-toned polyester glory.

Grandma could see potential in what the rest of us threw away. She could make an empty cottage cheese container beautiful with the right kind of hot glue, lace doily or paint.

She made a “pill-box hat” as a gag for a Senior choir she loved to perform in. It was a box, with some extra foam corners attached, painted and affixed with an elastic chin strap, to which she’d glued a delightful variety of empty medicine bottles… and colorful silk flowers.

She wore that hat with impish glee at the Methodist Church’s Mother-Daughter banquet, as if she’d just made the best joke ever, singing lustily in what I can only describe as a galloping alto.

God, I miss her smile.

She had style

I’ve written this eulogy a dozen times in my head, tears and snot dripping off my chin as I drove through rural Ohio farmland from some visit at which we’d lost another piece of her. Dementia steals our loved ones in nibbles and bites over time. It hadn’t stolen her glow, though. She could still belt out “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at a disconcerting volume, loved her scarves and wheelchair bling. At least until last week.

Since I was homeschooled through most of the primary grades, I always felt I’d hit the jackpot. For a time, my older sister and I got to spend every Tuesday night at Grandma’s & Grandpa’s so Grandma could give us Arts & Crafts lessons all the next day. They’d both been artists before the Second World War disrupted everyone’s plans. And while I wrote a whole essay in college on Grandma Betty’s fascinating childhood and young adulthood stint as a war-time rubber factory employee (“Rosie, the Rubber Worker”), she’d originally been trained to teach Kindergarten. She had the patience and sweetness and joy. Our Wednesday art lessons ranged widely from yarn-wound Christmas ornaments to my first hand-sewn baby doll quilt to pretty pitiful attempts to teach me crochet to pint-sized painting lessons “en plein air” of her exuberant, orchid-stuffed flower beds.

It wasn’t just what she taught us, it was how she taught us, valuing each one of us, understanding how it made a kid feel to get to pick their favorite flavor of yogurt from the milk truck delivery man, their favorite pillow or cocoa cup, their favorite bed in “the old boy’s room.”

For those of us grandchildren who already felt like self-conscious misfits in the world, somehow we knew it wasn’t just the foam trays and milkweed pods she treasured. Grandma could see beauty where no one else could. We knew “It isn’t junk to me” applied to us as well.

She loved us, unconditionally.

Grandma Betty was my first experience of just that kind of unconditional love.

God, in an ungodly shade of polyester pantsuit, with lipstick, nail enamel, a neck scarf and can’t-miss clip-on earrings to match, grinning at us. Maybe even popping out her dentures because she knew we got such a thrill out of that trick.

We were, all of us, every one, even after divorce or separation or some other relationship embarrassment or life failure, welcome. Always. It was Grandma who’d circle our dysfunctional clan in the living room at holidays, with the craft piles hidden upstairs and 6-8 different fruit pies straining the tables on the kitchen porch, to make sure we prayed the family prayer:

Father of all, in heaven above,

We thank thee for thy love

Our home, our food, and all we wear,

To thy love and care. Amen.

you can bet her nails matched that lip shade

I, Racist

It happened to me.

On a rare shopping trip to buy clothes at the mall, my mother and I popped into one of those boutique shops with racks full of dusty blue and rosy, shabby chic lace.

I loathe clothes shopping. Trying to make it as painless and fast as possible, I grabbed three items and headed toward a wall of dressing rooms in the back and a young woman standing nearby.  She was laughing and chattering in another language with another young woman who had just disappeared with a hanger or two behind one of the doors.

“Do I need a key to use the dressing room?” I asked.

She stopped laughing and tilted her head toward me and to one side, like she didn’t understand.

“I just have three,” I said. “Any special instructions?”

“I don’t work here,” she said.

“Oh. I’m sorry… I thought…” and my words trailed off.


The other woman reappeared and the two of them resumed chatting, laughing and walking away.

I stood there stupidly, confused and mentally reviewing the visual cues – gathered unconsciously, in a matter of seconds – that told my brain to assume “employee” at first sight.

It was the key lanyard, I decided. She was nicely dressed, in business casual, and hanging from her neck, I realized, there’d been keys. I’d just assumed they unlocked the dressing rooms.

It was the keys.

But shame nagged at the edges of my justification long after she’d left with her friend or sister or cousin. It bothered me. I kept shuffling the details through the fingers of my memory.

She wore no uniform.

There was no logo on those keys.

They could have been car keys.

Or apartment keys.

Or the odd assemblage of ID, meal card, and dorm keys that made my ever-present accessory in college.

Why did I assume she was staff?

The truth: I assumed she was there serving customers because she was young and female and brown-skinned, and those were the keys my internal racism used to fill in the blanks.


Usually worn with my clergy collar

A year later, the incident surfaced again for me when my church hosted an interfaith gathering for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Speakers quoted from King at length, and not just the easy parts:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

We asked one another, “Where does your power for love come from?”

One speaker shared with raw honesty how hard it was to speak of love in a religious building given the myriad ways so-called Christian boarding schools destroyed his community.

He spoke with visible pain.

As he spoke, I remembered the shopping mall incident, and I knew my answer to our earnest white liberal question that night:

My power for love comes from confession and repentance, that out-of-fashion ancient Christian practice of saying, out loud, “I screwed up. It caused harm. I’m sorry. I will try to do better now.” Unless I name the harm I’ve caused, the oppressive systems in which I’ve participated, especially unconsciously, we won’t be able to get to love.

I’d really rather not. But pretending otherwise only perpetuates this hundreds-year-old corrupt system, a system that has me just as bound by whiteness and shame.

I’m a Rev. with a Black Lives Matter t-shirt.

Confession is key: I, too, do racist things.

Dance, Shiva, Dance

For the past two months, instead of a teeny headshot of myself showing up various places on social media, a thumbnail image of Lord Shiva, a Hindu manifestation of the Divine, appeared next to my posts.

I’m not Hindu. I’m a Jesus-loving liberal Christian pastor. It’s just that Shiva has been chasing me since one year ago, when I found myself pinned to a wooden pew in the darkness of a Chapel on the edge of a Floridian lagoon. Along that lake, where the mossy sheet of algae crept in an unbroken wave from reedy shallows across the muddy bank beneath the pylons holding the walkways and right up the walls of our water-view rooms, we were removed. With no wi-fi and scarce cell phone service, the intentional dislocation surfaced truer feelings just beneath our skin.

Mine barely needed nudged. During the first evening’s prayer service, copious tears and quite a lot of snot glued me to my pew. Grief pinned me there. And pain. The hurt of abandonment and loss. Sitting there, I realized I had no choice whether to carry my grief or not. It was mine. But I’d be damned if I was going to let it screw me to the pew.

So, I removed my sandals. I skipped and hopped and turned in my long skirt around the perimeter, channeling my Pentecostal-ish youth and looking as earnestly awful, I’m sure, as Stephen Colbert in his YouTube hit video of solo liturgical dancing. At least it was dark. I hummed the popular Methodist hymn nicknamed “Lord of the Dance” alone on the path back to my room.  From their files,  my brain synapses also summoned a dusty image file of Shiva, a sculpture that had stopped me short in a Glasgow museum a few years before. I hopped and flipped my inner ankle skyward.*

My first encounter with Shiva at the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow

My first encounter with Shiva at the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow

Does it really matter what kind of loss I grieved that week? They all take a piece of our heart and leave us wondering who we are.

Wise people warned me along that Floridian lagoon, kindly, compassionately: “It’s gonna hurt like this for awhile.” We made a tender plan with not-too-many small steps designed to lead me and my beloved ones back to life, healing, and repair. First, a new job. Next, therapeutic support for myself and my stressed family. Then, home finance triage and first aid. It was a good plan.

I secured the job, a really good job. We moved across the country in January. We started over. And at this point in the story, things were supposed to get better.

They did not.

Two weeks before my arrival, a conflict erupted at my awaiting place of work. Despite professional support for all involved, it seemed new people became entangled in the chaos every few weeks – for three months, then six months, then nine. A majority of normal get-to-know-you “honeymoon” experiences got shelved or postponed.

A sales contract on our former home in Ohio fell through. We cut the price. We enlisted a realtor. It languished on the market, months ticking by with no sign of staunching the financial bloodletting. We cross-listed it for rent. Still no dice.

In May, my otherwise healthy spouse drove himself to the Emergency Room with abdominal pain and dangerously high fever temps. We waited through weeks of scans and follow-up appointments and MRI’s for the conclusion: a congenital abnormality needed removed from the depths of his abdominal organs. It’s a procedure only performed by liver transplant surgeons. In Cleveland or Portland? We weighed the logistics, the costs of time and travel, the strength of the support network in either location for ourselves as well as two small school-aged children.

My body threw subtlety to the wind. At work, vertigo attacked several times, a psychosomatic expression of just how much I was reeling.

A renter in another property we owned back in Ohio stopped paying rent. We initiated eviction. He moved out. In July, paying two mortgages in Ohio plus steep Oregon rent, I could barely breath. We got an offer on one property, but it would cost probably $10,000 to “sell.” I tried to inhale, slowly. I watched my shoulders migrate forward, attempting to shield me from new blows. We made it to vacation and flew to Ohio in August for family reunions and some real fun, including a visit to the cultural institution I probably miss most: The Cleveland Museum of Art.

It was a welcome break. A reprieve. But I’d certainly forgotten my nearly year-old promise to dance.

A week after vacation ended, thieves broke into the freshly vacated rental property and cut out all the copper plumbing. I spat out grim gratitude that the city had already shut off the water since we’d let the bill go unpaid by the tenant as an inducement to move.

But the copper. All the damn copper. The property manager’s emailed photos made me curse and swear at the disconnected water meter, surgically removed to rest on the basement floor. Insurance deductible. How much is it?

And I remembered Shiva where I’d encountered her the week before in a room like a glass box.

Shiva showed up dancing again, at the height of life chaos this summer, in one of the glass box galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Shiva showed up dancing again, at the height of life chaos this summer, in one of the glass box galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

She was cast in bronze this time. And though this one stood smaller than the magnificent dancer who stopped me, smiling, at St. Mungo’s Museum in Glasgow four years ago, my daughter and I halted and laughed at the obstinate upward fling of her ankle, the flick of the finger and the fire in her hand. Here was Shiva, dancing through the chaos, tromping the demon underfoot.

I looked more closely at the medium: Bronze. The first and primary ingredient in bronze is…


I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

Is it all better yet? No. But next week, there will be a party to celebrate my new job. It’s a churchy kind of party, with many words about churchy things. Normally, these festivities occur sooner, but major surgery, mediation processes, real estate woes all contributed to the delay. And maybe, just maybe, I needed this long to remember my year-old-promise.

Next week, that churchy service will be anything but stuffy.

Next week, we will dance.

*Hinduism for the rest of us: Of the three personifications of cosmic power called Trimurti in Hinduism — creator, preserver, and destroyer — Lord Shiva is the personification of destruction and transformation. Both times Shiva stopped me short, it was the popular image of Shiva dancing in the gender ambiguous form that embodies both destruction and transformation. Of course, I didn’t actually know that then.

On Independence Day: When Were You Set Free?

Red, White & Blue Cupcakes

Celebrate. It’s Independence Day!

These past two weeks, I’ve had lines from a chirpy children’s choir song in my head.

Freedom isn’t free… (bum, bum, bum, buh)
Freedom isn’t free… (bum, bum, bum, buh)
You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice, for your liberty.

We sang this song as fresh-faced preadolescents in a children’s choir in Ohio’s heartland in the 1980s, grinning and bouncing with show-choir motions during the “bum, bum, bum, buh” rhythm section. We sang it in parades. We sang it at Spring concerts. I’m sure we sang it at the local VFW when they invited us each year to offer the program near Veteran’s Day and gifted us with small, pearl tie pins in thanks and a plea that we children would never forget the attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States into World War II.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a month for freedom and its cost. Many of us are still reeling from the martyrdom of nine Christians in Charleston, S.C. They had gathered for Wednesday night Bible study. They welcomed a young white stranger into their midst, and then he murdered them specifically because of their black skin and the powerful role their church has played in movements against slavery and more recent injustice.

Many of us are still trying to grapple with the deep racism and white supremacy that enabled that attack in a “free” country.

Many of us also are celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision one week ago to uphold marriage equality in all 50 states, including Ohio, which had one of the most daunting prohibitions against same-sex couples and their access to the rights other married couples enjoy. I honestly did not think I’d see that day in my lifetime, and I spent the morning weeping off and on, thinking of the many people I’ve known who now — at least legally — are free to marry whom they choose.

One of Jesus’ first interpreters, Paul, wrote a lot about freedom. In one letter, he wrote, “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians, chapter 5)

What does freedom have to do with our spirituality? And how is it related to independence? Or interdependence? We wondered together last Sunday as a group of us Jesus people, atheists, agnostics, and seekers shared good food and great company for the “Freedom & Independence” edition of my faith community’s monthly Collaborative Meals.

And here is how we tackled it: “Tell us the story,” I said, “of a time when you were set free.”

People shared lyrics from songs and tales from college, stories of the end of interior oppression as well as external slavery. Do you know which story was my favorite? It was the story an atheist told about the first time he was set free from a (very oppressive) idea of God. He felt free enough to tell it. And I rejoiced that he did.

Before we shared the personal stories, we kicked off the conversation with a children’s picture book about a mouse in Hong Kong who sets free a carved wooden dragon to fly through the sky over lands “you and I have only dreamed of.” This time, one of the dragon’s lines jumped out at me:

“If you could free me, you could come with me, little mouse,” the dragon said. Free me. And you could come with me.

It reminded me of a truth uttered by President Barack Obama last week in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor murdered with eight others at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. “Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other,” Obama said, “that my liberty depends on you being free, too.”

As a follower of Jesus, I can celebrate an atheist’s release from the narrative of a Divine Punisher in the Sky because my liberty depends on him being free, too.

Sometime during your celebrations this Independence Day weekend, ask someone to tell you the story of a time when they were set free. Then listen. Your liberty depends on them being free, too.

Santa God and the Myth of the ‘Bad Cop’: Part I

You can keep Santa.

Now the presents are unwrapped, and in some cases returned, I won’t be ruining Virginia’s Christmas or anyone else’s by confessing:

I love Christmas, but you can keep Santa. I wrote off the jolly old elf once and for all after hearing one sentence from the mouth of my oldest child last year.

In the mid-morning lull after pancakes and bacon and presents, when all in the house were quietly reading or amusing themselves with new treasures, the five-year-old said:

“I must not have been good this year.”

Stunned, I asked, “Why do you think that, honey?”

“Santa didn’t bring me what I wished for,” she said. “If you’re good, Santa brings you presents. If you’re bad, Santa doesn’t bring them.” Her requests had been modest. “I wished for a jack-in-the-box, and Santa didn’t bring it.”

My daughter didn’t learn about Santa from me. But you can’t escape him in North America at Christmastime. Every single adult in my children’s life will at some point ask whether they’ve written to Santa, whether they’ve set out cookies for Santa, or what Santa brought them on the big day. We don’t want ourselves or our little ones to be rude, so we tell our kids that “Santa” is a game some people play. Even though we don’t play the Santa game, they don’t need to spoil it for their friends by telling them Santa isn’t real. (Also, for parental consistency, Tooth Fairies like me shouldn’t be throwing stones at North Pole houses.)

But the conviction in her face that Christmas morning – that she must not have been good – cut me. Coal-in-my-stocking-be-damned, I would have punched Santa right then, if he’d been near.

“Oh, honey,” I said. “That’s why we don’t play the Santa game. Lots of children today won’t get what they wished for. And plenty of children will get everything they could possibly want… and more than they need. But it won’t be because they were good or bad.”

I tried to refrain from giving her a mini-Christmas sermon. But I had to set the record straight. When we celebrate Christmas, I explained, we tell the story of Jesus who came to give us God’s love whether we are bad or good. (And all of us do bad things sometimes. None of us is always 100 percent good.) We aren’t good so God will love us and give us good things. God loves us and gives us good things already – the beautiful world, other people, life. We try to be good because we’re grateful for those gifts of love and want to share them with other people, to live as God wants us to live, to always be “Children of God.”

“God is more like mama or daddy that way,” I said. “We don’t give you good things only when you’re good. We give you good gifts because we love you, always.”

She seemed to listen. I stopped talking. After a pause, she said, “Maybe Santa figured we already had one jack-in-the-box, so he didn’t need to bring another one.”

Parenting a 5-year-old is a re-education in human nature.

I didn’t pursue it, but what I really wanted to say was, No, honey. There are fewer presents this year because Mama’s contract gig got eliminated. It’s not that you weren’t good this year. Frankly, you were often a howling banshee terror this year. But I’m your mother, and I love you anyway. That’s why I give you the presents I can.

This explanation lacks the magic of that Central Park scene in the movie Elf, but the only redeeming thing I find about Santa is his tenuous family resemblance to Saint Nicholas. The Saint Nicholas of Christian legend, a 4th-century Greek Christian saint and Bishop of Myra (part of the map we label Turkey today), is said to have tossed three bags of gold through a window to save the poor family within from having to sell their daughters as slaves. Rumor has it the actual Saint Nick punched heretics, too. So maybe he was kind of a jerk.

Compassionate and critical.

Generous and judgmental.

Good and bad, while exhibiting a slight tendency toward violence.

You know, like most of us. Normal. A human being.

My problem with Santa is that so many adults are still playing the Santa game. But they call their Santa “God.” If you’re good, God will bring you presents. If you’re bad, God won’t. It’s easy to slip from there to believing that if I have nice things, God must think I’ve been good. I deserve all the nice presents I have. My kids do, too. If I don’t have nice things, well, what’s wrong with me? Worse, many adults begin applying their “Santa-vision” to others: That family next door foreclosed on by the bank? Should have managed their money better. The mom spending her first Christmas as a single parent? She should have learned by now to choose her lovers more wisely and/or been a better spouse. That young black man shot and killed by police even though he was unarmed? Must have been justified.

I didn’t get what I wished for last Christmas: to be debt-free and able to replace my spouse’s breaking car, which we unloaded for $950 cash in hand just before the tags expired. And that person who is in debt/rehab/divorce court or who can’t scrape together their mortgage payment this month isn’t getting what they wished for, either. We each have a million small choices, but there are a million other realities we don’t get to choose. We aren’t where we are because we were bad this year.

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas – whether buoyed by the glow of candlelight in singing faces, or aching in the dark quiet of an undecorated, empty living room or trying not to drink too much in a loud, packed party where you feel like the loneliest person to ever wear reindeer ears – you are not getting what you get because you were naughty or nice.

From my life’s experience so far, having met God as love, with skin on, in the people around me and voices from the past, I can tell you this: God’s not Santa. And Santa makes a lousy god.

White Like Me

Over dinner last month, my 4-year-old asked, “Are the new neighbors white-skinned or brown-skinned?” As I pondered how to answer, his big sister chimed in, “I hope they’re white-skinned.” I paused, barely chewed. Could I answer without scolding or shaming them? I hazarded a question:

“Why do you hope they are white-skinned?” I asked.

“Because then they’ll be like us!” she gushed, with a grin.

Honesty. It made total sense. If the new neighbors were white-skinned, they would be like us. We are white. That’s the truth. And this wasn’t the time to talk generically about how many beautiful colors skin comes in. My child was looking to categorize “like” and “unlike.” She also was hoping the new neighbors would be as fun to play with as the two little children who’d moved out. She missed them. They’d been white-skinned, too. Like us.

“Well,” I said, trying to buy a little more time by speaking slowly, “If the new neighbors were white-skinned, but they hated to play outside and didn’t like to sing or make music, then they wouldn’t be very much like us, would they?” She cocked her head, but didn’t interrupt. Where was I going with this?

“But if our new neighbors have brown skin, but love to ride bikes and play outside and the Dad makes music in a band, they’d be a lot like us, wouldn’t they?”

She smiled, then laughed, “Yes.”

“So, our skin color isn’t the only thing that makes us like someone else or not,” I said. “Everybody is a people, a human being. We have to get to know them. Then we will know if we enjoy playing together or not.”

And maybe at this point I got too serious, with scenes of Ferguson, Mo., and offensive white defensiveness, hateful social media posts, and photos of militarized law enforcement boot-stomping through my mind. I couldn’t hide the urgency I felt.

“This is really important, sweetie, because lots of people get treated badly because of a difference like skin color. But it’s not right.”  “Whether someone is like us a lot or not at all, we give them the same kindness, the same respect. They get the same chances. Make sense?”

She nodded. She’d been quiet, a sign of brain gears working, I hoped. Then she asked for the bazillionth time how she could earn another dollar to go buy a particularly eye-catching piece of plastic junk she’d seen at Family Dollar.

Teaching moment over.

I wanted to tell her more: that the little classmate she’d wanted to come to her birthday party last year has the racial deck stacked against him, and that one sign was how difficult it was to get accurate contact information for his parents or guardians to invite him. I wanted to tell her that her next-door playmate is almost the age when other parents will fear for their preschooler playing in the yard if he happens to walk past, just because he is a brown-skinned male, even though he is ever gentle and generous with the small children who are mine. I wanted to tell her more, but even what little I’d said made my heart hurt. It was the best this mama could manage this time.

Half my daughter’s classmates are, in her words, brown-skinned. Half our neighborhood and her next-door playmates are, too. I don’t want her to be colorblind. I want her to be colorwise. I want her to be able to see difference and injustice. I want her to keep telling the truth. But I want her to see her friends and neighbors as fully human, as people, too.

A week afterward, we found out our new neighbors are white-skinned, like us. But they have no children. They never ride bikes. We haven’t heard any music wafting across the street or drumming from their back yard.

As far as my daughter is concerned, they are not much like us after all.

Getting People to Believe in Something They Can’t Yet Imagine

So many applications for startup faith communities.

In Which I Vow Never Again to Roll My Eyes if Someone Says, “The Gay Games… is Like Church.”

Every church could use more color.

Every church could use more color.

(A version of this post appeared in a sermon preached August 17, 2014 at Faith United Church of Christ, Richmond Heights, Ohio ~theRevCK)

I rolled my eyes in church last month. I’m not exactly proud of it. I was packed into a cathedral with no air conditioning. As a preacher slowly began her homily in the midst of the lengthy Interfaith Service for Gay Games 9 at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland, I confess I did a little eye roll. It was the fourth homily/sermon of the night, book-ended by a steady parade of words. It was hot and muggy. And I am not the Queen of Patience. But that wasn’t all of it.
I rolled my eyes because Bishop Yvette Flunder, senior pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, said:
“The Gay Games… is like church.”

The Gay Games is… like church? The Gay Games is like church? In the pregnant pause that followed, I thought, “Um, no.” Disbelieving what I’d just heard, I wanted to raise my hand to ask: Did you see the photos from the White Party with Boy George? Did you see the shining smiles, the drinks, the clothes, the dancing? And you want to compare that with the somber looking clergy in this cathedral who just proved they could not clap on 2 and 4? Out in Festival Village, I saw hot pants and fishnet stockings. Dancing. And COLOR. The Gay Games and Church? One of these things is not like the other. Not in my aesthetically repressed Protestant experience, anyway.

But as Bishop Flunder’s homily rolled on and – more importantly – as I allowed the Spirit in and among the people in the space to speak to me, I realized she wasn’t trying to say that church is cool. (If it was, many of us would not have a place in it. Me, included.) On the drive home, I realized Flunder was saying something more. And I experienced — as we say in our Embody faith huddles — a Kairos moment. I realized why it was so important to me that I, personally, and our Embody group, together, show up in some way at the Gay Games. And as the news stories pelted us with grief and violence in the week that followed, I began to believe that the Gay Games, a Jesus story about a Canaanite women, and the heart-rending news out of Ferguson, Missouri — all in the same week —  have everything to do with what the Spirit is trying to say today.

In a story told by Matthew in the Christian scriptures, Jesus gets schooled. At least, if you peel away all the propriety we tend to bring to Bible reading, we’d be hard pressed to prove anything other than Christ gets corrected. Something toxic comes out of his mouth. He spews poison from the deep well of his full humanity, which seems, even in the guts of the Son of God not exempt from longstanding prejudice against an ethnicity, region, religion, or gender. She was “a Canaanite woman.” Everything about her is unacceptable, including her behavior, as she comes shouting down the street in violation of every social norm. Jesus first ignores this woman pleading for her daughter’s health. (That’s the most civil response.) Then, he tells his disciples she’s just not included in his mission. When she finally insists, kneeling before him and calling him master, he insults her. He calls her a dog. And I believe the scholars who tell me that calling a woman a dog then carried pretty much the same tone “as if it were shouted today in a high school hallway.”[1] Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She replies, “Yes, Lord, but… even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

That should evoke in us more than a little eye roll. It certainly did in Jesus. What happens next appears to be the only place in scripture where Jesus… changes his mind.

Inches above this episode, our story-teller Matthew shows Jesus teaching the Pharisees what really pollutes our world. Here, a woman others treat like a dog teaches Jesus. Is it this conversation that broadens Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles? It’s hard to tell for sure. But by the end of Matthew, Jesus very clearly calls the disciples into mission on behalf of the whole world not just one part of it.

Not so very far from here, in this United States of America, human beings were treated like dogs this summer. An unarmed 18-year-old was shot and killed on a Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri. In the days since Michael Brown was killed in the street, we heard so much out of people’s mouths that defiled us, as a people, as a country. We heard police officers call black citizens “animals.” We saw a police force tear gas unarmed protesters, pelt even a pastor trying to calm the crowd with rubber bullets. We heard officials push into media mouths and hands the story of an alleged cigar robbery, implying, I suppose, that multiple gunshot wounds to the head and neck… was an appropriate or justified response to shoplifting.

Do you know how many times I’ve jaywalked in my life and not been stopped for it?

Do you know what they would call it if I walked out of BP with a pack of Virginia Slims, cussing at the clerk? I doubt they would call it aggravated robbery.

Do you think that if my son and his friends one day chased each other splashing through the local pool, that a random adult at that pool would argue with the lifeguard to have him thrown out? Unlikely. I doubt my son, with his pale skin and sandy brown hair, would get the volunteer pool police up in arms the way I saw them get riled this summer when a group of boys and girls, who happened to look more like Mike Brown than my son, chased each other through the pool in a water fight. They were doing what kids do in a pool. They broke no rules. But one of my neighbors felt threatened, and approached the lifeguard. Friends, I wish racism wasn’t still a thing at the local pool, but it is.

Who will heal us from this disease?

Who will cast out this demon?

Who will eradicate our persistent sin of treating other children of God as less than human?

With the Canaanite woman’s words echoing in our ears, I dare say that those of us in a place of greater privilege need to follow Jesus’ lead and allow ourselves to be schooled this week by those who have been treated as less than dogs.

I hope that you will not roll your eyes at me if I claim that the Gay Games taught many of us this summer just such a lesson. As a straight, white woman in need of a haircut, who struggles herself to clap on 2 and 4, I learned a lot from the community of LGBT friends and allies at the Gay Games. I encountered a community that does not just tolerate one another’s differences. I moved in a community that offers one another even more than respect. What I saw people give and receive from one another time after time was a reverence for the essential humanity of another, a reverence that celebrates the fullness of all our humanity. Imagine how that kind of reverence would have changed the story elsewhere in our world that very same week. How would that reverence have changed the story in Ferguson, Missouri? How would that reverence change the story in Syria or Iraq or Gaza or any number of places in our world? This reverence is a gift the Gay Games community shared with the rest of the world. And it is so very Christ-like. Participating in the Gay Games wasn’t about proving church can be cool or “gay is the new black,” or even to stoke our own pride over how much religious people can “help the marginalized.” Participating in the Gay Games mattered because with this community I learn a little better how to be a Child of God and a life-long learner of Jesus. Go ahead and say, “The Gay Games is like church.” I will never roll my eyes at such a claim again. A community of people who have been treated as less than dogs teaches me all the time how to be a better Christian.

Today, the Canaanite woman, the athletes and artists of the Gay Games, and the family and neighbors of Michael Brown are pleading with us: Push beyond tolerance. Go further than respect. Ask the Creator of All to transform your heart as powerfully as the Spirit changed Jesus’ mind when a Canaanite woman called him on the carpet for his inhumanity. These voices are shouting down the street to us: give reverence to your fellow human being this week. And if any of us needs a teacher, these voices are offering to show us how.

[1] Dock Hollingsworth, “Matthew 15:10-28,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. III, p. 361.

The Ulterior Motives of a Potluck

A shot of the gathered Cleveland Heights community before we lit our candles to sing.

A shot of the gathered Cleveland Heights community before we lit our candles to sing.

One night last month, hundreds of neighbors gathered in the grassy lot at Meadowbrook and Lee Roads in Cleveland Heights. It would have made a beautiful and joyful gathering — if not for the violent act that brought everyone together. Heights residents gathered to hold vigil for local business owner Jim Brennan, who was killed during an attempted robbery on a Monday afternoon.

I have mixed feelings about these kinds of vigils — for various reasons. But the final speaker’s words caught my attention. He pressed the audience toward living differently and invited the crowd not just to mourn and pray for justice and peace, but also to then turn toward the actual flesh-and-blood human beings standing nearby, introduce ourselves and learn more about one another.

“What we do here tonight we better live out tomorrow in our community,” he said.

That’s the moment I wanted to shout, “Amen!” I met some long-time residents I already knew and some I did not. I met a young man who works at Brennan’s Colony on Lee Road and lives in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Woodland neighborhood and was stunned — like many of us — over the violent loss. I met Terrence, an immigrant to the U.S. who has worked for years cleaning bars on Lee Road. I met a mother who held her infant son Sebastian to her shoulder as the crowd sang with lit candles:

We’ll walk hand-in-hand…
We are not afraid…
We shall live in peace… 

These are the verses of a spiritual of the Civil Rights movement whose refrain you may recognize, “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.”

But the truth is that if we leave our neighborly relationships on the surface — live “among one another, but not really with one another,” as a new friend recently said — we aren’t really going to overcome much. The final speaker’s charge is the ulterior motive behind my faith community’s potlucks this summer: building community. Building community — knowing and being known — is the only way I’ve ever seen the deep wounds we suffer one another and this planet overcome in any powerful way.

Potlucks aren’t the only way to build true community. But they are one way.  That’s why a few of us from very different life stages, experiences, and East side streets will gather again this Sunday night: to get a little closer to embodying true community today.

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