Guest Post: Sarah Donovan

suicidepreventionmonthI know there this some serious things happening in the world with the refugee crisis and I spoke with my pastor this week about it, but feel I need to talk about another topic right now. September is National Suicide Prevention Month. I have known people who have lost people to Suicide I want to talk to you about young adults and suicide.

This is a hard topic for me because unlike some people suicide has personally affected my life. I have a form of mental illness, I am not talking about having a bad day every now and then or having a drug problem I am talking about something that developed inside of me that I have no control over and no idea when its going to blow up and take over my life and so I have to treat with medication and therapy and some times hospitalization. I know how hard it is to talk about suicide but I know how important it is to bring up the subject. When I was a teenager and first dealing with my problems my mother would talk to me about suicide, I would roll my eyes and think why is she talking to me about this, but I would remember when I was at my lowest point hearing my mother’s voice in my head and how much of an impact that made.

People NEED to talk to children. Not just teenagers, but not only talk to them they need to listen to them. In fact they need to list to the child before they speak to the child. Children and teenagers are amazing, sit down with one and talk to them, trust me it will not be a waste of your time. So many children are afraid to share what’s bothering them; they need to know they have a voice and that their voice matters. There are too many kids out there today who think that people don’t’ care about them and what they have to say, there are kids out there who are being bullied and who don’t have a voice. We need to make sure these kids are given a chance to have a voice and that, their voice is heard. We need to stop young people ending their lives before they have a chance to live them. Please reach out to a child.

ferg

Sarah Donovan is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a lover of cats and an avid traveller.  She recently celebrated earning her degree in Electrical Engineering from UMass Lowell.  

Advertisements

A Living Wage

How much money do you need to live well? That’s the question that the living wage movement has been trying to address, and lately, it has been having a moment.

Florida_Tomato_Workers1_1Y’all have probably seen the headlines—about fast foodworkers in NYC, Walmart employees across the country, small communities of hair braiders and manicurists taking to the street and the internet and making the case for the “living wage.” Or maybe you remember further back, to Taco Bell’s Tomato pickers in Florida who went on strike a decade ago to draw attention to slavery conditions and unfair wages in the tomato fields of Immokalee Florida, or the 2000 movement in Baltimore led by religious leaders and activitists who came together to argue that tax dollars shouldn’t subsidize poverty-wage jobs, and who saw the living wage movement as a means to address local policy towards the working poor.

And then there are the more recent stories—about companies like Gravity Payments in Seattle, whose CEO cut his own salary in order to allow all of his employees a 70000 wage. About cities like Seattle, San Francisco, NYC, and Los Angeles, who have raised their minimum wage to $15.

In all of these cases, wages are framed as a moral issue—those who argue for a living wage seek to alleviate poverty, to reduce economic, racial, and social inequality, to empower working people, and to address the gaping chasm of inequality that grows wider every year.images

But I bring all of this to your attention because it turns out that the living wage shows up long before the United States of America was a twinkle in the eyes of Thomas Jefferson. You see, long before we were debating wages in American society, Jesus was using them to teach the disciples lessons about God in our Scripture today.

Let’s take a look at the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 20:1-16:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A few things we can notice immediately about this story:

  • Things haven’t changed all that much since Jesus’ day. In this parable, the landowner needs laborers, and so what does he do? He goes to the ancient equivalent of the Home Depot and gathers some workers for his vineyard. So we know that in Jesus’ day, there were clear divisions—there was the landed, working class, and then there were the poor who provided day labor, those who left their families as the sun was rising and stood at the side of the marketplace for hours, hoping for a chance to make enough to pay for dinner.
  • How much could they hope to make? Well, it turns out that there was a standard daily wage in effect during Jesus’ lifetime too. In this case, the full day wage for an unskilled laborer was a single denarius, or about $20 in today’s currency. So in exchange for 10-12 hours of labor, the poor could hope to earn as much as $2 an hour for often backbreaking work. They are not paid for the time that they spend waiting for someone to show up and offer them work, so we have to assume that this was better than any alternative.Denarius
  • There are more poor people seeking a job than there are jobs to pay them. We can assume that this is true because the landowner in the story is able to return to the marketplace at noon and again at three, and finally at 5pm, which means that there are men who may have been waiting for a job for twelve hours before the landowner finds them. In each case, he agrees to “pay what is right,” which likely assumed they would receive less than the daily wage.

All of this is the backdrop to the story that Jesus plans to tell about God. And I think that it is helpful to remember at this point that Jesus told lessons in parables like this because he could describe something familiar to his audience. We can assume, then, that the people he was speaking to were familiar with this economic exchange. This was the stuff of daily life for many of them.

We can also assume something else, and that is this: that the people he was speaking to weren’t landowners. It is unlikely that a crowd of landowners had the time or the interest to follow Jesus around as he healed and taught in the countryside. What is more likely is that the laborers—again, the unskilled, the poor, the immigrants and the aliens—had little to lose in spending the day with Jesus. His ability to heal the sick and cure the wounded without expectation of payment likely made him quite popular amongst those who could barely afford to eat.   Miraculous stories like the feeding of the five thousand probably sealed the deal for those who had little experience with the gracious providence of God.

Because that is exactly where this story is going. Because like many of Jesus’ parables, the story of the laborers in the vineyard takes an unexpected turn. After a day of work in the vineyard, the laborers gather to receive their wage. The landowner asks them to gather together based upon the time at which they were hired, presumably to differentiate their wages, and he calls those who were hired last to come up first.

Imagine the surprise of the other workers when they see that those who were hired last receive a full days wage! At first, they are excited—if this is how much the late-comers receive, then they are sure to receive even more! But expectation quickly turns to grumbling as they find that every person, from the last down to the first, receives the same.

It seems unfair. They grumble against them landowner, pointing out how much harder and longer they have worked, forgetting that they have received the wage that they agreed to. The wage that seemed sufficient until another worked less and received the same. They do not consider the hours that their neighbors endured by the marketplace, praying for work. They do not consider the calculations that their fellow laborers may have made as they wondered how they would pay for bread for their little ones. All they see is the perceived unfairness of today’s boss.0e621993_blogheadergrumbling

How often do we find ourselves in this situation—where we have labored long and hard to sustain a simple life, even as others seem to gain an easy life without much effort? How often have we found ourselves grumbling against the perceived ease of our neighbors, comparing our hardships against theirs? And how often have we felt that we were dealt an unfair hand, or than another was given an unfair advantage? How much energy have we spent building a ledger by which to compare our lives to our neighbors?

And how often do we consider what we do not see? Because when we spend our time building a spreadsheet to compare ourselves to our neighbor, what we miss is the good news—a story about the unmerited generosity of God. Because Jesus never set out to offer a blueprint on how to earn God’s favor. This isn’t really a story about wages and unskilled labor at all. Rather, it is a lesson about how life in God’s Country is different than our own. In God’s Country, no person is left by the edge of the market place. In God’s country, God keeps going back to gather up those who have been forgotten, and gives them a place to offer their gifts. In God’s Country, everyone has enough to feed their family today.

grace lifeJesus’ parable is a reminder to us that no person deserves the grace that God has offered. In the words of Paul: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together with Christ—by Grace we have been saved. In other words—It turns out that all of us are the late-coming laborers! By grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, but it is a gift of God. None of us were here when the sun came up, and yet God has given us the gift of grace just the same. So perhaps it is time to give those who come after us a break. Perhaps we can make space for others to receive this gift which we did not deserve. And perhaps we can let go of the ledger sheet on which we measure our worthiness, and the worthiness of our neighbor, so that we can begin to appreciate the gift of grace for what it is: a living wage for all.

Seeing is Believing

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

John 20: 24-25

This afternoon hubby and I made our first (and hopefully only) visit to the local hospital in order to have an ultrasound on young “Snaggy,” as we have been calling the creature inhabiting my body for the last 22 weeks or so (there is a story, but it isn’t worth repeating here).  While our birth center doesn’t require any fetal imaging for low risk pregnancies like mine, we decided we wanted to go through with the 20-week (or in our case, 22-week) fetal anatomy scan.  The point of the scan, essentially, is to confirm fetal age (and therefore also due date), as well as get as many photos as possible of things like the heart, kidneys, bladder, stomach, and extremities in order to confirm that things are going as they should.

The ultrasound took about an hour, and the tech was extremely nice to us both, pointing out the various elements of the scanning to us as well as commenting on our apparently quite active little critter.  An hour later, we left with copies of a couple of the ultrasound shots, and a healthy dose of information regarding el nino’s health and well-being.

All-in-all, it was an interesting process, but it also got me to thinking a little on the way home about the importance of seeing.  By all accounts, hubby and I have no reason to suspect that anything would be wrong with “snaggy”–we are both young and healthy, and the midwives at our birth center are confident of our baby’s health as well.  And yet, having someone show us that little critter flipping around inside of me, pointing out a healthy heart and kidneys and bladder, along with legs and arms that look as they ought, feels somehow like the proof we needed.

But it is more than that. It has been getting harder and harder to forget that I am pregnant these days (any tendency to forget is mediated by a growing belly, a slower run pace, and the jabs of this little one gaining its strength), but seeing it someone confirms the peculiar truth that there is a little person inside of me, a little critter with its own mind and heart that is growing and experiencing life even as we speak.  For hubby and I, to see its face for the first time was in some ways to realize its reality.

So what is it exactly about seeing something with one’s eyes that is peculiarly truth-affirming?  Why is it that we, like the disciple Thomas, find that seeing something makes believing it easier?  What is it about humanity that the eyes, easy to fool as they are, become a means toward accepting what often is there?  I must admit, there is a part of me that is uneasy with the need to see to believe.  Part of me wasn’t certain I wanted to do the ultrasound at all–I found myself wondering to what extent seeing this child might limit the possibilities that await us down the line.  While it is nice to see, there is something about seeing that has the potential to kill the mystery of a thing.  For when we see, our imaginations no longer fill in the blanks–whether it be God, a baby, or anything else.  And while some things indeed need to be seen, I find that I tend to prefer to sit with the mystery when given a chance.

Don’t get me wrong–I am happy that this baby is healthy, and it was amazing to see its little self flipping around within me.  But I also imagine that I would be just as happy to wait for the inevitable future in which it will be in my arms–because no matter what, this baby is gonna be a reality soon enough.

 

Poison Ivy: God’s Great Leveller

For the lover of Nature, there is no end to the supply of theological and philosophical musings on the wonder of God’s creation.  Whether it is Ralph Waldo Emerson or Anne Dillard, Michael Pollan or Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry or Barbara Kingsolver or even Mary Oliver, one does not have to look far to find 200 pages or so of poetic verse dedicated to the intricate beauty of those who inhabit the land.

It is a secret delight of mine, I must admit, to linger over the pages of authors such as these, and to imagine in full color and with vibrant imagination the experiences that they detail on paper–the rush of the mighty wind, the cool waters teeming with dappled trout, the way in which words can transform even the obnoxious gadfly into a meditation on the holy, or a rotting trunk into a moral on the universe.

But there is a limit, it would seem to such musings.

Rarely, for example, have I seen an author turn their “reverent” gaze on poison ivy.  It is as though this persnickity plant, ubiquitous though it may be throughout the United States, has failed to register in the writer’s worldview.  It would seem that it is not worthy of the printer’s page.

Perhaps it is the visual humility of this plant that causes it to escape our notice.  For certainly it grows low to the ground, with only a few leaves to its name.  No wonder the plant at first glance–and even perhaps at a second and third–seems forgettable.  It is literally drowned out by the glory of the oaks and the buzzing of the arthropods, often hidden beneath its more majestic neighbors.

And so it is that we too easily forget this lowly creation as we turn our gaze to the grander aspects of Nature.  We write it off as base, a pest to be avoided, and we go about our business glorifying its neighbors.  But is this fair to poison ivy?  Is it not majestic in its own way?  If we wish to wax poetic over the majesty of God’s creation in the oak, ought we not also wonder at the cunning of this creature?

I found myself wondering at precisely this question last week, following my first encounter with this lowly little vine. As a Californian from the Bay, I grew up unfamiliar with ivy, for I lived in one of the few places in this country where the plant doesn’t grow.  And so it was that, when I moved to Philadelphia and began the process of amending the impoverished soil in my back yard for a small garden, it never occurred to me to familiarize myself with ivy.  The problem of ivy never even crossed my mind.

Which is precisely why, the day after a particularly vigorous weeding sans gloves, I was suprised to discover that my the space between my fingers on my right hand was becoming swollen with tiny blisters that itched the living daylights out of me.  Even then, it took me almost a day to discover the source of the blisters, and to begin to educate myself so that I would never make the mistake again.

Score one for the poison ivy.

In underestimating poison ivy, I had, like so many nature writers, dismissed it from my notice, and this is precisely what allowed this little plant to teach me a lesson.  For in underestimating its power, I succumbed to it.  In ignoring the plant, I made it possible for the ivy to hold my attention for at least a week, an unfortunate reminder to me that some plants know how to pay it forward in ways that we cannot imagine.  Some plants, like poison ivy, have a way of teaching respect to those who would offend them.  For certainly, the oak is majestic, but its beauty has never impelled me to scour the library and the internet for information on how it works.

It is interesting to me, in fact, that it is the more pesky plants and animals in God’s creation that inspire knowledge.  We are often much more keen to understand the mosquitos and the poison ivies of God’s created order than the gaudy and obvious splendors.  But rarely to we engage them with an eye towards the sacred.  Rarely do we speak of the sumacs and the fleas as God’s good creation as well.

As for me, I may have trouble seeing the fleas as beautiful, but I have gained an appreciation for poison ivy.  In the garden, I approach it with reverence, and I think twice before I deign to interfere with its turf.  It may look lowly, but even the highest of us all dress down once in a while.  And besides, it was in some of the lowliest creations that Jesus himself found beauty and God’s glory at work.

On Retreat: Day Three

Peace Be Still; Peace Be Still; the Storm Rages; Peace be still.

-Stephen Iverson

This week is flying by!  It is so energizing to spend time in community with ministers, and to find that we have so much to share with one another.  I am relishing the time on retreat, and even, dare I say, feeling a bit of sorrow to leave each evening… part of me wishes I could stay the evening with the group.

This time tomorrow, our time together will have ended, but for now I have the pleasant opportunity to bask in the experience.  The music, thanks to Stephen Iverson, has been absolutely amazing; the worship has been peaceful; the conversation, thanks to Judy Yates Siker, has been fruitful.  Our time today in the stories of Lent will most certainly have an impact on our liturgical experience in the coming year, and I have so much to think about besides.

What I am interested most to share is our wrestling with the Scriptures today.  We spent our reflection time in imaginative dialogue with characters from the Scripture texts.  Beginning with the temptation and in conversation with the Tempter in Matthew 4, and then later with the Storyteller who speaks the story of the Blind Man in John 9, I had the opportunity to work in a new way with the texts of the season.  The permission to use imagination and creativity in my preparation was an opportunity that has lent itself to discovery, personally.  To begin, HDS didn’t spend a whole lot of class time on much other than the academic enterprise of study and reflection.  The concept of praying and wrestling with a text with one’s hands or one’s artistic brain was not something that was done.  I believe this was a weakness in our education, for I have found both yesterday and today that the creative mode is an absolutely wonderful way to enter scripture.  Now, don’t get me wrong here– I’m not saying that making a cup out of clay is the answer to all one’s sermon ruts–but what I am suggesting is that perhaps we go too quickly to the commentaries, rather than sitting with the gem of our own minds and our own imaginations for a while as we process text.  Certainly I am quick to step away from the text and towards another’s intellectual wrestling with it.  But to let it enter you to the point where it lives in a dialogue imagined or in the stroke of a paintbrush–that is exciting.

Ultimately, I guess I look forward to seeing what we will explore tomorrow, and in figuring out how all this might work in my life back home–back in the thick of it, as some might put it.

Great Day

Well, it probably wouldn’t look like it on the surface… this week was dominated by the sudden passing of Gilbert Smickle, the brother of our clerk of session at UPC.  It was painful, and it certainly was occasion for more than a few tears and sighs too deep for words.  And yet, I am consistently overwhelmed by the goodness of God and the power of community in this sad times.  For quickly on the heels of the tears were stories with great power, power enough to sustain and remind us of connections between the family and friends of the departed, power that knit us all together as one family, a body of Christ, rather than isolating any one person.

I am amazed, I must admit, by the sacred space that I am privileged to inhabit as a pastor.*  I get to be a part of this journey in a way that I could never have anticipated.  Sure, I sit with families in the midst of terrible, horrible, gut-wrenching grief, and sometimes it is true that I am asked to ferry the lost and the despairing the through the dark night of the soul that seems it may never end (in case you are wondering:  I have not special powers or experience in this mysterious territory–all I can do is point to the light and hope folks someday will see it… all I can do is be honest and real and present, which often feels like doing nothing, feeling helpless, and holding trembling hands or rubbing tired shoulders).  But I also get an inside look at the joy that the departed has left behind–and when we are lucky, there is much joy to go around.

This week was tearful, yes, but it was also one of great joy.  I was and am honored to have been able to be a part of it, and it is my prayer that all such departures can be as graceful, faith-filled, and beautiful as Gilbert’s was in our beautiful sanctuary, with these beautiful saints, today.

*speaking of which, who would have thought that the rites that come at the end of life would end up being a space in which I felt so at home?  Death seems scary when it only happens to other people, and by the grace of God I count it a blessing that in my work death comes running straight at me, and those who are left behind cannot be ignored.  I think many more on this earth might feel less scared of death if they were given the opportunity to face it and talk about it as openly as I need to in my own ministry.

Today’s Subject is Loneliness

Difficult, difficult, difficult.  It has always been so difficult for me to acknowledge and embrace the part of myself that can suddenly be overcome by loneliness, whether I am alone or not.  The person who, in the midst of a room full of people, many of whom she knows, will become increasingly aware in the midst of that room that she feels invisible, unnoticed, passed over.

Perhaps it has to do with who I am and how I see myself.  I am the eldest, and I have always wanted to be liked, to make my parents and those I admired proud of me.  I have always wanted to be someone that other people knew and that folks liked to be around, and I think it would be fair to say that I have coveted the approval of others throughout my life.  But I also know that I like to forget the part of me that was so lonely as a child–I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I often was picked on in school (I was a bit of a nerd, and before that, I liked “little kid” games like make-believe well into middle school, and before that, well, I was sort of a tomboy).  The friends I had were closely held, and often not very many at any given time.  As I got older, I had more “friends,” but almost all of them were not the sort I shared your life with–more the kind that I ate my lunch and took my classes next to.  We were more like friends by geography than choice.

I wonder if that hasn’t persisted to some extent into my adulthood.  Sure, my sister commented in college that I seemed to know everyone, but I rarely felt as though anyone knew me.  MOre often, I felt like folks knew my name, and knew what I did, but didn’t really share my life.  Same with seminary–I was a decent schmoozer, but I left seminary really with one good friend, and I didn’t meet her in school at all.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I am struggling these days with the profound gulf that I will sometimes find myself trapped in.  I know I can’t be alone in this, but I can’t help but feel alone in the midst of it.  My job is one where being extroverted and knowing everyone is good, but one drawback is often that you know a little bit of everyone, and they know less of you.  And given my education I sometimes find myself struggling to analyze my experience, but I am not sure that is the best antidote either… is it really going to help me, for example, to try to try to diagnose my loneliness, or is that just another way to avoid acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, this is a part of who I am?  Maybe I would be better off just sitting in it and feeling it, rather than hiding it away.

I do have to say though, I find it amusing that today I was feeling lonely in, of all places, a church in which the mission statement could probably decently be described as welcoming all people in so that loneliness diminishes and community increases.  And here I am feeling like the odd man out.  I have my reasons, I suppose, but I did find it to be unexpected territory.

If someone brought this problem to me, I suppose I might be tempted to wonder, “Where is God working in this,” or “what lesson might we learn,” or maybe something more clever that connects the spiritual to the emotional.  And I do believe they are connected somehow–I almost never worship myself, these days, and I find it interesting that I feel so lonely when I do.  But I gotta be honest, I don’t feel like answering the questions right now.  If I could be blunt, I just want to feel less like the island I experienced today.  I want to be a part of things, and for others to want me to be a part of their lives, rather than just a number or a person who can give them something.