Thursday, March 27, 2014

Preaching in the Town that Never Was

 SPRING BREAK! Woohooo!!
I'm so happy to be able to spend some of my break in Los Alamos, New Mexico; this wonderful community of Bethelem Lutheran has supported me by giving me a scholarship to go to seminary.  Not only do they do that, but they were the place I first preached and washed people's feet last year on Maundy Thursday.  The Lloyd family from this church sends me a care package or a card every month because I am the student that they support.  If anyone from this church happens to be in the Bay Area, they come and take me out to dinner.  These people barely know me yet they smile at me like I am a long lost friend who has finally come home; this is a special place to visit and I am so grateful!
 I'm not only immersed in this church community while I'm here but I get a feel for the cultural context that is here in a town that literally only exists because of the Manhattan Project that was placed in the middle of the desert of New Mexico for scientists to test the atomic bomb.  Los Alamos is a town that is centrally focused on The Lab; a whole bunch of frugal, humble, and friendly scientists (ie geniuses) that are passionate about their work and also want to make a difference in this world.  This small town is so chock full talent and resources yet it struggles with many issues.  What does Los Alamos say for being a town and laboratory that was placed right on Indian land?  How does this place reconcile for making a space for a LOT of job opportunities for this area of New Mexico yet pushing Indians off of their land and also polluting the environment with harmful chemicals?  How do these brilliant scientists relate with the indigenous peoples as well as large Spanish-speaking populations in this area that were here long before The Lab and this Town That Never Was (it was a secret town during the Manhattan Project)?
Not only in terms of cultural context, but how does this town with the huge pressures that lay on the children's shoulders to be brilliant and go far in their careers?  This community has experienced quite a few suicides in recent years and are working on cultivating ways to show students and children how valuable they are outside of intellect, after-school activities, and getting into prestigious colleges.

I thought a lot about these issues the first time I was able to visit Los Alamos last year and I continue to hold all of these people in my heart as I am here once again.  Today I had the spectacular opportunity to get a tour of an Indian pueblo by a native, Ramos Sanchez, who is a very talented artists, World War II vet, and full of amazing stories that stand the test of time.
New Mexico: what a precious place to be today.  I hope that hearing the story of this place is helpful to you, dear reader, in some way.  I was privileged to be able to preach at a Lenten service for 4 of the congregations in Los Alamos that I'll share with you.  As always, thank you for reading, thank you for caring about me, thank you for being someone who reminds me that every day we are filled with God's love.

Romans 5:1-8

5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Savior Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

I'm not familiar with many of you but am so grateful to be here in this community tonight. I'm Kaitlin Winter-Eulberg and I am a seminarian in Berkeley, CA; I'm a very grateful recipient of the Hayes Memorial Scholarship from Bethelem Lutheran Church here in Los Alamos, NM. One of the first thing I'd like to share to help you all understand a bit of me is that I am not only a pastor's kid, but both of my parents are ordained ministers in the Lutheran church. This means that I have been dragged to many a church event. In high school, my mom took me to a campus ministry supper and bible study event at a house where Christian college students would live and volunteer. I distinctly remember meeting another pastor there who greeted me in saying: “Good to meet you today. Isn't this day wonderful? Everyday we are filled with God's love.” This man laughed as he spoke these words and people around us said that this was his standard greeting for everyone, every day. I don't remember that man's name or even his face but I certainly remember his words.
As we hear this passage of Romans, what does it mean to boast in the hope of sharing God's goodness? When I first hear the word boast, my thoughts do not go to “Yes, boast; that's it! I should be boasting!” Within our cultural context, boasting can be seen as focusing on our own deeds and puffing ourselves up to something bigger than we are. My own understanding of boasting is when we tell a story not to share it with someone else but rather to hear the words out in the air and so other people know how awesome we are. Yet, this text calls us to boast not of our accomplishments but boast of the abundant grace of God. Boasting no longer is about puffing ourselves up to be deflated by the trials of life, but we boast of the foundation that cannot be shaken. We share the story: for God so loved this world that God took on a human body as Jesus. Jesus walked on this earth just as we do and suffered like we do as he died on a cross, showing us that there is no limit to God's love for us. We are vessels in which God pours and pours and pours love; this steady stream of grace is constant and never ending. It does not matter whether we are kind or hurtful or even boasting about ourselves instead of God. God pours love through us so that we can spread the joy of the freedom that we have as we stand on God's grace. Even as we are humans who cannot hold unto or understand the ultimate truth of God, this Romans passage states that God has proven the love that God has for us in the story of Jesus Christ dying for us even as we are a people of sin that focus on worldly treasures. Even in our sinful nature, we are called to pause and say: “Isn't this day wonderful? Everyday we are filled with God's love.”
This Romans passage not only calls for us to boast of God's love but also that we are to boast in our suffering. What does it look like to boast in suffering? I imagine that speaking about our suffering upfront can be vulnerable place to be and that it helps take the burden of holding our suffering alone. One of the most touching pieces of Jesus' death for me is that I know that God has suffered through pains of which I cannot comprehend. Jesus has taken on all of the suffering and walks through death into new life; whatever pain and hurt I am experiencing, I know that Jesus is present. This does not make our grief and hurt and pain go away but rather shows us that we are never alone; we are all together in this world that has been embraced in love by God.
This passage speaks out towards suffering in that is produces endurance, character, and hope. This part stops me in my tracks because it carries a progression that begins with suffering, as if suffering is necessary to understand hope. This holds a whisper of the concept that the suffering we all experience is supposed to happen so that we may grow into hope. The painful experiences that we grip tightly do not make sense and there are deep wounds that were not meant to be there. Suffering is not supposed to happen but rather, it is here and we all are holding pieces of hurt whether old or new, huge or small. What do we do with this pain and grief?
The suffering takes shape in our lives and the question this passage focuses on is what can we do with our suffering. We share our story and our pains so we see that we are all together working towards the reminder of hope and love that God constantly pours into us. We boast of our suffering in order that we see that our place is here with each other and that our hope lies not in ourselves but in the gracious love of God. We boast of the love that God gives in our words and deeds. We are called to look at each other and say: “Isn't this day wonderful? Everyday we are filled with God's love.” We are called to take the hands of the person next to us and share the love and energy that God continues to pour into us every day.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Perspectives of the City.

 It took a few days on the streets to fall completely out of love with San Francisco. The City had been a playground for late nights dancing, long days of walking to “see the sights,” and places to spend money for a piece of luxury. Now I was faced with the dichotomies of the beautiful, shiny buildings and the shit that actually paves the streets.

Like many, I bought into the fantasy of the heart of San Francisco. I imagine the City as this slinky woman in a sparkly dress that speaks in a husky voice: “Come to me and I will hold you; I will kiss your wounds and made it all well.” Lady Francisca whispers to the lonely outsiders and offers a mild climate with a comforting bosom on which the hurting can rest their heads. This lady points to the sparkling blue Bay, the rust colored arches of the Golden Gate, and the mysterious fog as the environment where souls can be restored. But here's the thing: Lady Francisca is bullshit.

Lady Francisca has deep, sharp claws that will sink into your pocketbooks and flesh until you are dried up. Lady Francisca offers you a few hits to kick back and relax until your brain is obsessed with the next fix and the fix is no longer a kind gesture but a demanding fist. This mystical place of hippie love, space for all, and progressive politics pays close attention to the color of your skin: if your skin is not white, it does not matter if you were born here or work hard or have dreams.

I walked the streets and peered into the corners of this City of “Free Love” and found how many prices there are to pay to reside here. I saw the distrust in the eyes of faces that were hardened by years of judgement and being pushed out of their homes by the Bay. I saw the “affordable” high-rise lofts in the Filmore that replaced beloved neighborhoods of many African-Americans. I heard about the many years that Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans were kept inside the walls of Chinatown, not allowed to become a part of the community of San Francisco. I felt the desperation leaking out of people's voices as they whispered, then spoke, then yelled to be heard and seen from their spot on the streetcorner.

I lowered my eyes in shame as I waited in line to get food, use a restroom, or be able to sit down somewhere. There is nothing I could do to make myself not a young woman with shiny teeth and innocent eyes that glaringly told people that I did not know or understand the streets. My eyes deadened with exhaustion from sleeping on church floors and pews, walking for miles, and holding in pee, but that exhaustion didn't change that after 3 weeks of being immersed in the streets of San Francisco, I got to go home. As I walked the streets littered with trash, I knew that there were a few coins and bills in my bag that could pay my way into any coffeeshop or bar. What a luxury, to know that if worse came to worst, there were so many safety nets lined up for me to fall into. How terrifying to see that those nets can easily be broken apart into useless pieces of fabric.

The first days walking in San Francisco as a “cultural immerser” I felt myself on edge. My back was tightened, waiting for the sting of something or someone. The only person that was attacking me at that moment was myself; the fear held all of my ability to connect with others. I immediately felt changes as I boldly strolled down a darkened street as a night minister: I wanted to be seen and I wanted for people to talk to me. Every pair of eyes that I made eye contact with was someone that I could acknowledge, give a nod to, or maybe have a conversation with. I met the people that I would call the real Lady Franciscas: the night ministers who embrace those on the street who are hungry for comfort and a listening ear.

As I settled into being a person who walked the streets of San Francisco for hours each day, my eyes were opened in new ways. The people on the streets, whether they were hurriedly walking to an appointment, full-on running to catch the BART or bus, or sitting on a stoop while calling out for money, these people did not seem like strangers to me. I saw the fear in the eyes of young women walking down a dark street, I saw the seemingly powerful confidence of a suit-clad person walking with a cell phone. I watched many people pass by and ignore people that were sitting or standing on the sidewalk, asking for change. I have been that person that walked right by a person hoping for interaction; I have been an active part of this system of overlooking the real humanness of people in this city that we say we love so much. Rather than being a part of the system, I stepped back and saw all of these people as opportunities to learn more.

I walked past a man sitting on the street who was yelling out for someone to hear him: “ANYONE? DO YOU HAVE CHANGE?” His face was twisted in anguish as he called out to the people that quickly passed by who avoided his eyes. As more people encountered him and did not acknowledge his presence, his voice rose and fell in desperation. I looked over towards him and our eyes locked. 

The man's face changed so instantaneously that I was in shock. His desperation and anger melted away into a smile that creased the skin around his eyes. He gave me a thumbs up as I asked him how his night was going; I told him I hoped he could find some warmth that night. He waved goodbye and with that broad smile, said, “Thank you, bless you and enjoy your night!” I was astounded by the sudden happiness that lept off of him as I took a few seconds to glance over at him. It seemed like there was a hunger that was running deeper than the need for a bite to eat or a warm, safe place to sit: he was deeply yearning for someone to see him as a person. This man gave me hope that night in the city that had been exposed to me as bleak, greedy, and cold.

The shiny lights of Lady Francisca still don't entice me the same that they once did. Yet I learned how to love San Francisco again from a man with a toothless smile who sat down with me at a senior citizen luncheon. This quiet guy talked me through his daily routine of begging for coffee each morning and then walking around the neighborhoods of San Francisco. He spoke of his favorite spots to view the rolling hills of San Francisco and the best benches to rest on for an hour or so. He described the Presidio's green trees with a fondness and familiarity; he advised about the best times to see the sun shine just right on the Golden Gate Bridge. After describing all of these beauties in the city, he said, “You know, every single place in this city holds so many perspectives; it just depends where and how you are looking at it.”

I can look at San Francisco from the eyes of a guarded woman walking alone in a darkened street; I can see this city from the eyes of a business person hurrying about their day. But I choose to see this Foggy City by the Bay from that man's gentle and caring eyes: I see the fog silently rolling in through the buildings or the sun shining on the pavement that is worn from walking. I see this City with tired feet and with a heart that is turned towards hope.