Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Flight Lessons

There once was a flight with a young boy.There once was a flight with a young boy.  He seemed to be full of life and glee in a way that seems to be drained out of you and me.  As we started out he yelled 'we are flying whheeeeeee!'  As we landed he exclaimed 'that was he best ride EVER!'.  Everyone laughed and smiled.  It may have been the best ride ever.  

We who fly frequently are hardened by the routine. We are harried by life and wondering if all that solitary time will allow us to get the
work we need to do done. Before the advent of the easily portable electronic devices I would make friends on airplanes.  Once upon a time I connected with a young mom enough to get a babysitting gig.  I recall getting to know a lobbyist for the Childrens Defense Fund, and looking back it was the first time I heard the name Hillary Clinton. Now we barely exchange pleasantries.  Or at least I do.  Maybe you are more gallant than I.

I travel often enough to have my routine down.  Headphones, snacks, Sudafed, beverage.  The pleasure of that lightness of being of a smooth and uncrowded flight.  The relief of a row to yourself when you are a million times tired.  I find myself wondering if this is one of the last places where we arrange ourselves in rows and sit for hours at a time.  

There is something amazing and startling about this time together.  I wonder if this time apart, this lightness of being is what people seek from worship.  The strangers who stumble into our gatherings, who desire that tingle of skin that intimacy of strangers that the experience of religion can be.  If you have never flown before then those instructions are jaw dropping and they rattle on to quickly.  A lifelong flyer and Episcopalian I can only imagine how unsettling it can be to be new in each setting. 

Now though, hardly a person looks up at the flight attendant as he or she rattles off the routine statements about seat-belts and cabin pressure.  The protests from the associations seem well founded.  I myself could recite the statements as blindly as the Nicene creed.  I know all about seat cushions and the likelienss of survival from any wretched occurance.  However, as someone who steps into a pulpit, as someone who has something to say, I feel a commitment to pull off my headphones and watch.  I will confess to not paying complete attention, but I watch.  Proclaiming with no one looking at you is dreadful.  I once was in a pulpit with a rather good sermon and there was this couple in front, who might as well been watching their pedicures dry.  When they did look up they seemed to be the most bored people on the planet.  It can undo your confidence, it can bring the curtain down on all the things you were full of life to say.  We preach rules of travel and so do these servants of the airborne road.  So I pull off my headphones and ignore my tablet and I look up.

Proverbs 5.13 I didn't listen to the voice of my instructor. I didn't obey my teacher.

I look at the person speaking if I can see them.  I look like a listener and I try to be a listener.  At every moment of the flight, we are in the hands of their service.  It isn't a perfect service, however neither is mine.  I love the wacky videos some airlines are producing, but we shouldn't need that level of circus to grab our attention.  Life and wellness and a smooth flight are at stake.  All over the place the church is trying circus acts like the 80`s safety video.  We don't not seem to heed the still strong voice of our instructor, we daydream of stardom when all he wants from us is love.  What can we do to get folks to look up, to listen, to follow in turbulent air?  Should we be so flustered?  I know that many people learn better when their hands are busy and their eyes are not stuck in one place. 

Yet there is that magic, that holiness of connection that happens with a look or a touch.  It is hard to concede but if we lose the humanness of our life together we will lose the truth of the incarnation.  He looks us in the eye, holds our hands, listens to our grief, heals our ills.  Let this be a lesson learned, look up.  Your beloved is speaking.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Joseph, oh Joseph, where for art thou?

He looked at me with a mix of sly embarrassment. He turned away from me with a mix of sly embarrassment and dumbstruck speechlessness.  There was a touch of a smile but mostly silence. I had asked the young fella 'what do you mean when you wink at someone?' It was on my mind, I don't recall why.  I had probably read an article on non-verbal communication. Or maybe I had seen a show where a wink was misconstrued.  I have to confess that sometimes I seek understanding of wider society through the young people I serve with.  So as we sat waiting on cool marble steps on a hot day, and I asked about winking.

The young man I asked, he stayed in that sly silence for a while. You could see his mind trying to come up with an answer he would share with an adult female.  Eventually, a chaperon/peer spoke up and said, 'it means what you think it means.'  Which I still have some questions about, but that is for another time.

Unnamed and unknown biblical character of pageants past
You see, I see that same look on the faces of young males almost every year.  It rests there mixing with what I am sure will be the syllables of ' um, not really'.  This time though the question is 'Will you be Joseph?'  Over and over I see echoes of that same sly embarrassed look when trying to cast a late-elementary or young teen male for the role of Joseph the husband of Mary for the annual pageant.  I frequently am greeted with the same awkward silence.  There is pressure to please and to participate, but no, not Joe.

As for Mary, I get queries mid-summer if not before Easter.  I have heard accomplished women tell me how much they resented never getting to be Mary.  (Someday I am going to have an all Mary pageant just to alleviate some of this angst and amuse myself).   Mary is a big deal; the star may be the infant, but in any pageant the co-star is certainly this young woman.  My current costume closet has three options for Mary.  When the young girls ask about the role their eyes are full of wonder and delight.  They want the blue, they want to hold the baby (I consider it a personal failure if I cannot find a real infant). Frequently these girls are small, the infants are sometimes nearly half their size.

As much as she is adored and the role is prized and it is only pretend, it does touch on something verboten.  In this day and in my zone of ministry we tend to be committed family planners.  Studies show that young people like the ones in my upper middle class mainline Protestant congregation, would experience this situation as tragic.  Mary was young; not much older than the girls I usually cast.  It was a different time and place; however this practice was a contributor to high infant and maternal mortality.  Even with all of this scandalous and terrible baggage, Mary still gets the Disney princess treatment.  We ignore the deeply disturbing and celebrate the darling instead.

Joseph is actually a little bit like the prince's: in that he is relegated to a thinly developed, but crucial to the story, supporting cast member.  He is the other father of Jesus.  I have been asked 'but if God is Jesus' dad, who is Joseph?'  We know very little about him from scripture.  His brief scene in Matthew is humorous in its reality.  Plenty of people would have reacted the same way: get me out of here. He turns back, nudged by dreamy angels to stay with Mary and ultimately to keep her from becoming a woman of ill repute (at the least...in their time and place an out of wedlock pregnancy could have been a death sentence).

The rest of our selections involving Joseph are shallow.  Was he older?  Had he been married before?  His departure from the story isn't mentioned..he is in Jerusalem with the family when Jesus gets separated and astonishes the elders.  And then silence.   The undeveloped character of the role is not the issue with casting him.  It is easy to get young fellas to play supporting roles like shepherds and Magi, or Herod, or even angels (with biblically accurate swords or fire), giraffes or penguins (I have interesting pageants).

Myself and an enthusiastic
maternal character
Some of it is that there is the BABY.  Most young girls express interest in babies, they talk commonly about imagined future roles as parents and partners.   I don't hear that much from boys.  Perhaps some of it is nature, but it is certainly reinforced by socialization.  In both of the Holy Family roles there are implications of romance, of parenting and partnering.  For as much as we are over-sexualizing young people at younger and younger ages there still seems to be the stage where the other is 'icky'.

Which reminds me of what one repeat performer of the role said.  I will call him Tigger, and he says that "one of the vast reasons that a boy might NOT want to be Joseph because, well, they do not want to be the symbol of a caring male. They do not want to have to pretend to be in love with Mary and be a great man. They are to cool for that."  He goes on to suggest that these motivations are lame and not very faithful.  Yet he hits the nail on the head.  Despite the over-sexualization of children, tweens and teens, connecting yourself to these topics from our faith story in a public way can be chilling.

I posed the question to my peers and most of their experiences echoed the heart of Tigger's response.  This is an adult story, and it is fairly scandalous.  Asking young people to connect themselves with this story, at a stage when metaphor can be difficult, is inviting friction.  My neighborhood sociologist Dr. Michelle Janning expands the conundrum saying "Combine a less highlighted and less visible role with boys' likelihood to distance themselves from devalued roles like, well, acting roles, and you have a recipe for unpopular and un-masculine. Not a winning combo for boys to want to engage in." Furthermore, she points to the research that clearly shows that we reward girls for participation in nurturing roles in a way that we do not reward boys.

So what am I, what are we, to do?  I want the young boys we are forming in our communities to be nurturers. The sly young man at the start of this post was wonderful with young children, and the boy I quoted above, was one of the few Joseph's that I didn't have to instruct to pay attention to the baby. We can assume that the majority of these young men will be fathers.  I will openly state that I expect them to be involved nurturers in their families.   Furthermore, I want boys and girls and men and women, and those who find that whole dichotomy fraught with complications, I want everyone to find themselves in this story.  

For all its adult themes, it is our story and it is our life-giving scriptural story.  We 'Anglican' types are heartily focused on the incarnation, that what saves us is his entire story..from before the beginning began through his birth in human flesh to his death on the cross and his resurrection and ascension.  The whole being and life of Christ our Lord is rescue and redemption and part of the reason we act these stories out it because we claim to have found our truth and redemption in them.  

 I also don't want to make someone uncomfortable in an unnecessary/unprophetic way.   This year I found myself wondering if I really 'needed' a Joseph . Would it be like a Thursday Next novel without him??  Thank goodness that the father of the infant actress who played Jesus is a willing performer and stepped up to the task.  (I usually try to have the infant's parent close by..so this was perfect.)  Perhaps a contemporary nurturing father is just the example we need to raise up.  

Clearly the issue is complex, and deep, and much like the original story it should astound us.  Our work together can only begin to unravel how we enter this story and invite young people into this story and make it their own. We are shepherds of a story and a people, and more like the angels we are called to shake things up without shutting things down.  Maybe instead of an all Mary pageant, I need an all Joseph one.