Under The Collar Experiment

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Finding Jesus

I was on the phone yesterday morning trying to have an adult conversation when Beckett bursts into the room and announces:

“I found Jesus, Mama!”

I tried to remain calm and unphased, but I also wanted to celebrate with her and share her enthusiasm. I laughed a bit at what it must have sounded like on the other end of the phone.

“Could you hold on just a second,” I said into the receiver, and turned my attention to Beckett. She was holding up a bracelet she got for Christmas from a family friend. It has two parallel elastic strings with 10 or 12 icons on oval shaped beads all the way around it.

I asked Beckett if she could wait until I finished my conversation, managed to pacify her for the moment by offering her another hit of her drug of choice (the television), and finished my phone call. Afterward, I went to her and said happily, “Now let me see Jesus.”

She turned the bracelet around inspecting one bead at a time. I had never looked at the bracelet that carefully. There was a bead for Mary and one for St. Christopher. She thumbed past a bead with the baby Jesus by himself, also one with the baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph, and then a bead with Christ hanging on a cross. I bit my tongue as she passed the bead with the scene of the crucifixion.

Looking intently at the bead, she said, “Where is he?” to herself outloud.

And then she exclaimed, “Here he is!  Jesus!”

The bead she topped on displayed the 19th Century version of the Jesus, with fair skin, light brown hair, and blue eyes, with a metallic dome of blue light surrounding his head. It was the Jesus that had hung on the wall of my grandmother’s home when I was a child. Even though the facts of his appearance are likely historically wrong, it was a Jesus I recognized – a celebration of the triumph of love over life, a persistent and relentless love that has the power to unite communities over centuries, a repository for the human spirit.

“Yes, Honey, that is Jesus,” I said.

Last night at bedtime, I prayed with her. We have been saying the serenity prayer. I think she likes it because it’s shorter than the other choices and moves us along to story time faster.

         God grant me the serenity
         To accept the things I cannot change
         The courage to change the things I can
         And the wisdom to know the difference.

Such big words for a little girl – serenity, courage, wisdom – such big concepts that I am still today trying to completely understand.

After the prayer, I played the running commentator to see if I could gain access to her thoughts.

“You are sleeping in your bracelet,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” she said grinning “I found Jesus.”

I smiled and took a deep breath. I said “Jesus was a great teacher who loved everybody in the world…”

A few moments went by and she said, “Like Santa?”

“Kind of,” I said. She’s only 3. That will have to work for now. I am thankful that yesterday was not the day for me to explain the crucifixion, but I am certain that day will come.

It pains me to think that she, too, will likely be betrayed as her life unfolds. She, too, will have to be born again and again over her lifetime, dying to old ways of understanding herself and the world and making space for new life to take root. Even my beautiful little girl, so innocent and sweet, will have to walk across the valley of the shadow of death.

My job as a mother and as a minister – in my collar, in my stole, or in my pajamas – is to offer tools, touchstones so that even when she – or a member of my congregation or someone like you – is in the valley, she will know she is not alone.

Whether it is a Tzadik, a Mu’min, a Rishi, Guru, a Saint or Jesus, I pray that she finds what she needs to make it to the other side feeling held and without bitterness or resentment. I pray that she can make it through the struggle of this world still able to see the beauty and be able to feel the joy.

The church’s job is to do the same – to help us find Love that transcends death while we are still able to celebrate having found it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What's in A Name?

Names are very peculiar.  When people ask, “Who are you?” Our first response is likely our name.  Yet, our names actually reveal very little about who we are to someone who does not know us.  It is much more descriptive to name our profession, our education, our relationships, our likes and dislikes.  Names in themselves do not describe us and yet they carry with them the burden and the power of total representation.

I was not born with the name Lebak.  In May of 2004, I drove to the Circuit Court in Joliet, Illinois, to officially change my surname.  That morning six or seven cases that were called before mine, all requesting name changes.  There was a woman asking to reclaim her birth name, a woman who wished to change her son’s last name to her own, and a man who decided that he wanted his middle name to be Green Lantern.

According to State Civil Procedure, “Any person who desires to assume another name may file a petition in the circuit court praying for that relief.  If it appears to the court that there is no reason why the prayer should not be granted, the court may direct that the name of that person be changed in accordance with the prayer in that petition.”  I wish that all prayer responses were that simple.

Names in our religious and mythical history have often served as an indication of an individual’s character, function, or destiny.  In the Bible, only God and men were given the authority to name: the father named his children and slaves, Adam named his wife and all the animals.  Biblical names often suggested the traits of the child, like Esau for hairy.  Some were drawn from the names of animals or plants like Deborah which means bee or Hadassah which means myrtle.  Sometimes a biblical name was ascribed before a person’s birth, to indicate some special destiny. Today, most Americans no longer connect the roots of our names to Biblical stories, nor do we necessarily think of occupations or our destiny when we hear family names such as Baker, Hunter, Abbott, or Gardner. 

The morning of my court date for my name change, the judge called my case number.  It was all very simple, really.  He asked for my driver’s license and proof that I had paid the fee.  The judge looked at the documents and then looked at me. 
“So, is Lebak your maiden name?”
No sir,” I answered.
He stared at me perplexed. “So, you just picked this one out of the air?”
“Something like that, sir,” I responded.

Actually, I had put a lot of thought and prayer into Lebak.  I discovered the word while reading  Prayers of the Cosmos by Neil Douglas Klotz, which includes  poetic translations of the Beatitudes, The Lords Prayer and certain sayings of Jesus.  Lebak is the word in Aramiac for heart in “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.  Lebak literally jumped off the page.  In Aramaic, Lebak means heart, the center of one’s life, compassion, and audacity.  I want to be reminded every time I say or sign my name what is at the center of my life.  I want to be reminded to be compassionate, to validate my emotional experience, reminded of the impact that I can have with my life, of the blessing that I can be.  I may even be described as audacious on occasion.  Lebak was fitting. 

Abram’s name changed to Abraham when he formed a covenant with God.  His wife Sarai later became Sarah.  New Muslims consider the changing of their name to be a mark in their lives between one stage (before Islam) and another (after Islam).  There I stood in court about to graduate from seminary. The judge raised a single eyebrow and said, “Well, ok then,” He stamped the paperwork and called the next case.  I left the courtroom with a sort of Las Vegas Honeymoon/Deer-in-headlights look.  It had been so much more uneventful than I had expected: no raising of the right hand, no swearing to go by this name until death do I part, no parting of the clouds in the sky or the earth beneath my feet.  But something inside me shifted.

To distinguish ourselves and to join together, we say our names.  May our names, given or chosen, each time that we utter them, serve as a prayer, a reminder, to look at how we are presenting ourselves to the world. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Rock Star in A Collar

The church I serve just hosted an Engagement Party of LGBTQ couples in our state to 
announce their intention to wed, Date TDB (when it is legal).  Twenty Seven local clergy 
and a packed house of supporters attended the press conference and panel discussion.  
Thirty-one couples announced their engagement and were blessed.  And then during the dance party that followed, I debuted my new song "Dear Oklahoma" with Jared Tyler.  It is a love letter to my home.

Here are the lyrics to that song.  You can listen to that performance with Jared Tyler here.
(I am hoping to have a cd out in the Spring)

Dear Oklahoma

Got your red dirt in my veins  
Love the wind sweepin these plains
Sleep soundly to the music of your rain
See, My honey lamb and I
We believe you’re more than “fine”
But I need to ask you why
dear Oklahoma

Dear Oklahoma
You made me who I am  
I am your daughter
help me understand
pray beneath the same blue skies
Watched tornados pass us by
can't you love me
If I love her  
dear Oklahoma

Met her 18 years ago
When we were teaching school
Lead by example and taught the golden rule
Still we’re told we don’t belong
And that how we love is wrong      
I’m staying put to sing this song
dear Oklahoma

Now we’re leavin’ Tulsa Town
To exchange our wedding vows  
Then home to again to work the fields we have plowed
One thing we don't understand
Despite how much we love this land
Why it's so hard to love us back

dear Oklahoma

It was a uniting of three of my identities in a very interesting way: Minister, Americana Singer/Songwriter/Rock Star (TYVM), and in a lesbian relationship. It was an integration long waiting to happen and I am so proud I can barely stand it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lost And Found

Last week as I was leaving for work, I buckled my 3-year-old into the car. And then.  Could not.  Find.  My car keys.   Anywhere.  New smart keys have not helped me keep track of them. If they are anywhere in the car, the car will start.  They were not in the car.  My 3-year-old was impatient.  And I was getting more impatient by the second.  I handed her a pacifier -- the iPad -- and went back in the house -- for the third time -- to look.  They were not in the house. I called my spouse to see if they were left in her car from the night before. They were not in her car. They were gone.  I needed to suck it up and face reality.

Before I moved to seeking a solution -- how I was going to somehow drop off our daughter and make it to my doctor appointment -- I lost it.  My daughter was (fortunately) obsessed in the cartoon of the moment and barely noticed as I alternately riffled beneath and banged my fist on both front seats yelling,  “Shit! Shit! Shit!" I knew what was happening. Somewhere inside me was a kinder, gentler, nobler me full of compassion watching a 3-year-old tantrum as expressed by a 41-year-old adult.  Three-year-old me and mature-adult me both had on a collar. The me who was cursing was judging the cursing too.  It was the perfect opportunity for our daughter to cry "Hypocrisy!" Fortunately, I was spared. This time.

I called the only person in the world I would bother at 7:45.  This noble friend would have to go to my office and obtain the spare key, then drive 15 miles out of town to give it to me.  She knew I wouldn’t ask unless I were desperate.  She knew I would do it for her.  As soon as she said yes, I unbuckled my confused child.  I told her I had lost the keys and our friend would bring me an extra.  Then I took her upstairs where she was giddy to have a chance to increase the length of her cartoon fix.

Then, I went to sit at the dining room table. There, laying on the table where I had looked three times previously, were my keys.  I quickly called off the rescue mission to a very grateful friend who earned all the points having never left her home.  I turned off the television and moved the real 3-year-old full tantrum now in progress back to the car.

Now that the roles were righted, I approached her freak-out with patience and grace. I was ashamed of how I had acted.  What kind of a role model was I to our child?  What kind of minister curses and pounds her fists on the seat like a toddler?

I regained something in that moment that I had temporarily lost, the keys to compassion -- for both of the 3-year-olds in the car.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Another Plane

I flew to Houston this week, my first time on an airplane while wearing my collar.   It was on an airline that requires pre-check in.  When you check in on-line, you receive a number and letter, A through C.  No one wants to be in group C.   People in group C know the plane is full and there will only be middle seats remaining: no one will make eye contact, everyone will puff up like a rooster to take up as much room as possible. The collar offered no support in confronting this awkward situation.

I always fly with an unrealistic expectation of catching up on one of the numerous ignored books from my bedside table. But traveling in a collar makes me feel like I have a responsibility not only to be pleasant, I feel like I need to represent the ministry well.  I have a duty to talk when engaged. I carry with me an idea that if every person is a child of God, then they deserve my attention if they want it. Even when I am not in a collar, there is something natural about my presence that attracts others to talk to me about what really matters to them. It is as though I have a neon blinking sign on my forehead that says, “TELL ME EVERYTHING.” It is a rare plane ride when I am able to completely immerse myself in the book I brought along.

My plane reading this trip was Be Love Now, by Ram Das.  Ram Das promotes a level of consciousness taught to him by his guru in India and supported by his psilocybin experiments.  We are all part of God. We are all part of the One.  Every moment is an opportunity to meet God in ourselves and in others.  It requires moving our awareness to another level of consciousness and, at the same time, staying present with this moment and what is.   There are things one can do to prepare to meet the kind of Love that is pervasive in the world and ever-present.  Ram Das likens it to the way in which lovers prepare for a first date: pay special attention -- be clean and presentable to The Beloved, shower, shave, powder, and perfume. Putting on my collar sometimes feels like preparing myself for a date with The Beloved, reminding me to meet God in the presence of others. 

No one spoke to me about anything of particular import on this plane ride.  There were a few niceties, “Excuse me,” and, “Would you like peanuts?” At one point, I closed my eyes and imagined that the man on my left and the woman on my right were extended aspects of myself.  I expanded my meditation to involve the entire plane, all in different stages of life with different gifts and challenges.  When Ram Das writes about reincarnation, he is considering times before this life and possibly after.  I imagined instead that it is all in the now. Right now. And on this plane, on this trip, we chose not to discuss what mattered to us.  The man on my left played solitaire on his phone for an hour.  The woman on my right flipped through magazines.  I silently honored where they were on their journeys and read more than 100 pages about being on another plane. 
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