May We Never See Another Day Like It: Talking about the Discipline, Accountability, Race and Repentance

May We Never See Another Day Like It: Talking about the Discipline, Accountability, Race and Repentance

Rebekah Miles, Clergy Delegate, Arkansas Conference, South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church

Please God, may we never see another day like yesterday. At the meeting of the South Central Jurisdiction we voted to affirm the decision of our episcopacy committee to call for the involuntary retirement of one of our Bishops. We must have accountability, but no jurisdiction, no episcopacy committee, no conference, no Bishop, and no Bishop’s family, should ever have to go through what we went through.

We tried yesterday and over recent days to make the best of a terrible situation. Even so, let’s don’t fool ourselves; this has been a bloody mess. We are now deeply wounded as a jurisdiction, and we will be carrying wounds and then scars for years to come.

What can we do to bring some healing and to help this never happen again? I can think of three things right off.

We need to fix The United Methodist Book of Discipline. There is not a person on our episcopacy committee or among our episcopate who would say that the process in the Book of Discipline could not be clarified and improved. Our jurisdiction specializes in reform legislation; writing, supporting and passing reform legislation is our hobby and our calling. Other jurisdictions can help us. We must have a way to hold Bishops and other clergy accountable, but we, as a church, can find a better way. Let’s get to work.

We need to talk about race. Please, please hear me, I am not at all saying that the decision of the episcopacy committee was racist or that race was at the heart of things, but if race were not already an issue in the larger context of our church, this would not have been nearly so brutal. It’s nigh on impossible to look, for example, at our patterns of appointment and say that race isn’t still an issue for our jurisdiction and others. Our dynamic young Anglo pastors and our dynamic young African-American pastors simply do not have the same opportunities. We have to talk about race. When I have floated this idea, some African American brothers and sisters have told me “White people don’t want to talk about race.” Of course, we don’t … but we have to. United Methodist leaders, of whatever culture or ethnicity, have a long tradition of carrying the Good News of Jesus Christ into places of pain. That’s where the Gospel is needed. Let’s talk about race in all its complexity.

Finally, we all need to repent. I’m not blaming anybody in particular . . . I’m blaming everybody. In one way or another, we are all complicit. This is one of my least favorite parts of the Gospel, and it’s the part I most need to hear. In this part of our life and most others, we need to repent and throw ourselves on the mercy of a God. We cannot heal this, but there is a balm in Gilead . . . a balm that is healing enough even for the deep wounds we now bear. Let’s fall to our knees before a merciful God . . . and then let’s get up and get back to work.

P.S. To the delegates of the South Central Jurisdiction, to the members of our episcopacy committee, and to all our Bishops and their families, I give thanks to God for you and your faithfulness.

Bishop Bledsoe’s Announcement and other related documents

*[Added material -- At the end of the original message I have pasted a transcript of Bishop Bledsoe's June 1 announcement that he would retire and his June 5th announcement that he would not.  I've also pasted the response of Don House, chair of the episcopacy committee. I'll keep posting those kinds of things here but am not going to include any of the news stories because there are just so dang many!]

This is a link to an audio file of Bishop Bledsoe’s announcement, made at the close of yesterday’s North Texas Conference session, that he would not retire after all but would “fight” to stay on.  The announcement begins at the 2 minute 40 second mark.  (He was waiting to begin until his wife could join him on the platform.)

Bishop Bledsoe’s Announcement

This is sad business all around … for everybody.  My response to this is not unlike my response at the close of our United Methodist General Conference.  The only good I can see is that it is one of those billboard size reminders that  our only real option is to trust utterly in God.  God is a master at improvisation; only God would be able to bring something beautiful out of a mess like this.

I join with so many others is praying for the North Texas Conference, for Bishop Bledsoe and his family, for the episcopacy committee, and for our jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

Peace,

Beka

P.S. To my students at Perkins or anyone else who is still in the process leading toward ordination: Please don’t make any inflammatory comments here … or anywhere else for that matter.  Be prudent.  If you want more explanation, please see my Facebook page.

P.P.S. To my non-United Methodist friends: Don’t worry.  I won’t be posting very many things on UM politics.

Transcript of Bishop Bledsoe’s announcement that he would not retire

Remarks made on June 5 at the close of the North Texas Annual Conference session in Plano, TX

[Transcribers note: Although I have listened to the recording a dozen times or more to make sure this is as close to perfect as possible, there are a few words that were inaudible. I’ve put brackets in spots where I had questions.]

I promised that I would respond to the resolution yesterday. I’m going to respond in this way. Someone – several have asked me what prompted my decision to take early retirement. And I shared with them my decision in terms of the video. But I could not leave this annual conference without at least assuring you [or sharing with you] some of the things that went into that decision.

First of all, a couple of weeks ago I was summoned by the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee and was informed that North Texas did not want us to return back. I felt disappointed. I felt like we had given all of ourselves to the work that is before us. And so, if that was the decision of the North Texas Conference I would abide by that decision. And then I was told that the leadership that I had given in North Texas was so bad that nobody else wanted me within the jurisdiction. And that made me sad as well, because I felt like all the work we had done — sure we made some changes — but I think in the long run it will strengthen the church for the future.

And so with that I mind I asked, “What are my options?” The committee said I could either take voluntary retirement or they would vote involuntary retirement. Now you need to know that all of my ministry, I’ve done effective work. And I don’t feel ashamed over anything that I’ve tried to accomplish in terms of the church. And so Leslie and I have been praying about this. And I am not going out this way.

(Applause)

When I saw the change in our statistical data – the first few years, you know, we kept beating you over the head and telling you how bad things were -

When I see that we’ve [inaudible word or two] increased worship attendance for the second year in a row. We’ve taken in new members, more than we did last year. We’ve paid out apportions higher than we did last year.  And we started 16 new congregations within the North Texas Conference. That makes this conference a very, very strong conference. And I feel like I have been an effective leader.

(Applause)

And I don’t know who poisoned the well, but I know that many times when you are a leader, and you do some things that are a little different, it does make some folk upset. But I want to tell you, I want to use Mike Baughman’s language — but I’m not going to use his words.

But I’m not going out like that.[1]

And so, we’ve decided that we’re not going to retire.

Whoever [?] planted those bad weeds among those good seeds, it’s probably going to make some folk upset. But with your help we’re going to fight like the devil to claim the ministry that is here in North Texas. And we ain’t going nowhere unless somebody forces us to go. We’re going to serve Christ, and I believe that God is not through with North Texas yet. But I need your help.

And I promise you that over the next four years you’ll see a church that is exemplified by the love of Jesus Christ. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s not work that cannot be done. With your help and with your prayers and with all of you working at it, we can get it done — not just the clergy, both lay and clergy — not just those who have been in our conference a long time but even our young folk and our youth.

We can work together and accomplish all that God has in store for us. Now that’s my challenge to you. Now you’re going to be sent forth.

(Applause … Whistling … Cheering)

Now I said I wasn’t going to say this, but I’ve got to get it out there. You know, because sometimes things hurt. And whenever we say to each other,  “I heard someone say, ‘When are we going to get a white bishop?’” That’s hurtful. Now I understand what people mean.  But I’ve been fair to all of you. I don’t play favorites. I do want to expand the table. And I do want more persons to share in leadership, more diverse persons.

But we’ll take it as we are willing to go and as you are wiling to work with me in the annual conference.

I’m going to send you forth.

Bishop Bledsoe closed with a prayer (which was not included in the audio from which the transcript was made) and the conference was adjourned.

Interview released on June 6 by the communications officer for the North Texas Conference and for Bishop Bledsoe and given to the press as follow up to his June 5th statement-

What did you mean by “fight like the devil?”

‘’I mean that I plan to fight the devil to claim the ministry that is alive and vibrant here in North Texas. We have worked hard over the last 4 years and I believe that work is just beginning to bear fruit. To give up the fight and quit in the midst of this, is not who I am as a Christian. North Texas and I started on this journey together to focus on our mission and to realign the conference to accomplish what we believe God is calling us to do. I choose to fight for completing the work.”

Why was your leadership discounted?

“I am not sure, but I found it difficult to believe that all of North Texas believed that way. North Texas is a great conference and has some great churches and people responding to the call to reach people and make a difference. My sense is either the committee only heard from the unhappy and negative voices that presented a chaotic view, or a few persons cut backroom deals to make a change. I don’t know unless those of integrity on the committee come forth to share their story. All of the work is supposed to be done confidentially. All I can say is that there were no formal complaints filed or charges against me. I have served faithfully and lived up to the integrity of the office of bishop. When asked, much of what I get is generalities and opinions.”

What are your hopes for North Texas Annual Conference?

“We will continue to focus on helping our churches become more vital in their witness and outreach, focusing on developing principled Christian leaders who are both young and old and reflective of our mission field today. My hope is that we will continue to create more places for more people to become Disciples of Christ. My hope is that we will continue to focus on ministry with the poor and fighting the killer disease of malaria. These are the programmatic ministry hopes – my greater hope is that through open and transparent trust we will learn how to work together, both lay and clergy. It will require more listening and more honest conversations, but I believe we have taken the first steps over the last four years. Now we are being called to work through the personal issues of relationship. “

What changes are you prepared to make personally?

”I want to have more of an open door process. Sometimes others try and protect the bishop from people and sometimes some try and intervene in addressing issues that should be communicated with the bishop. I have always believed if you want to solve a difference between a person you go directly to that person. If you want to create division or conflict, you tell it to someone else. Some of the issues that have been shared with me have to do with how decisions are made. In addition to the open door policy, I would want to create a bishop’s advisory team who could provide feedback and offer constructive ways of dealing with what may be perceived as contention or concerns. I would want to spend more time in the annual conference rather than going to meetings outside the conference. Trust and confidence take time to build , but can best be enabled by being present with persons over time listening and hearing their concerns.”

Transcript of Bishop Bledsoe’s video announcement of his retirement on June 1, 2012

Dear North Texas Family,

I call you family because I think that’s what we’ve become over the last four years.  I want to greet you in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I have some very important news about my future as your Bishop and about your future as the North Texas Annual Conference, and I wanted you to hear this news directly from me.  I have made the decision to voluntarily retire.  This will take effect August 31, 2012.  I am retiring because this is where I believe God is leading me and my family. And hopefully Leslie and I plan to relocate close to our families and begin the life of a retired bishop.

These four years in North Texas have had their highs and their lows, but I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey with you. I want to personally say thank you to all of you.  Your support, your prayers, your leadership, your work towards building the kingdom of God here in the North Texas Annual Conference has been remarkable.  And when I reflect back on my time here with you, I will smile and say “Thank you God for the willingness of the people to risk it all for the cause of Christ and his church.”

We will be gathering for annual conference session in a few days.  I’m getting the news out of my retirement out of the way so that we can focus on the work that is ahead of us. Try not to be distracted or worried about the future of the North Texas Annual Conference or about our future, because the God in which we serve is a wise and mighty God and will ensure that a new episcopal leader is sent here. That person will be assigned in July at the Jurisdictional Conference and will assume the office on September 1, 2012. I hope that you will take the time to shake my hand or even give me a hug during annual conference.  You mean more to me than you’ll ever know.  But until then, I look forward to seeing you in a few days.  And may God richly and continue to bless you.

Statement by Don House, chair of the Episcopacy Committee, issued June 8th -

Statement from the Chair: June 8, 2012
The South Central Episcopacy Committee spent many months developing formal evaluation tools for active bishops. As part of that process, the full committee met individually with each active bishop on February 6-7, 2012. Bishop Bledsoe’s schedule conflict at that time resulted in an additional called meeting with him to complete our work. In advance of this full committee meeting, three members of our committee met with him on March 27 to review our materials.
Bishop Bledsoe met with the full committee on May 24. This meeting represented the completion of our evaluation of all active bishops in the jurisdiction. The evaluation of each bishop was extensive, including the use of a variety of metrics.
The results of our evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe were mixed. While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question based upon our own evaluation tools and through conversations with North Texas Annual Conference leaders. We discussed these results, reports, issues and specific examples with Bishop Bledsoe.
Following our discussions with Bishop Bledsoe, our committee took a single action—that of requesting Bishop Bledsoe’s retirement effective August 31, 2012. I, along with one additional member of our committee, met with Bishop Bledsoe on May 29 to deliver our committee’s request for an early retirement.
At the end of that meeting, Bishop Bledsoe made his decision to retire early. It was a difficult decision for him and one influenced by additional information presented in the meeting. Our committee had already pledged to schedule a hearing in which a vote would be taken, according to the Book of Discipline, to consider involuntary retirement if he chose not to retire early. Additionally, based upon the written and oral evaluations, we found no members of our committee (who represent all of our Episcopal areas) who felt Bishop Bledsoe would be an effective Episcopal leader in their annual conferences. His decision to choose early retirement was understandable.
In my earlier statements to the press about Bishop Bledsoe’s retirement announcement, I purposely withheld some of the above information. Our committee deemed this information confidential and appropriately felt that withholding such information as confidential would be of personal benefit to Bishop Bledsoe, given his decision to retire early.
On June 1, Bishop Bledsoe released his public statement announcing his early retirement. On June 5, at the end of the meeting of the North Texas Annual Conference, Bishop Bledsoe reversed this decision and discussed specifics of his evaluation.
Our committee has scheduled a hearing on July 10 to consider the question of involuntary retirement.
Donald R. House
Chair
South Central Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee

Don House, episcopacy committee chair, elaborates on the evaluation process:

We began with a review of methods of evaluation used in other jurisdictions.  We then perfected our own survey instrument which contains two parts:  Part A and Part B.  Part A seeks general information about the annual conference and episcopal area, along with a few metrics–worship attendance, Sunday school attendance, apportionment payments, and new church starts.  Part A can be completed by any of a number of people in the conference office. 
 
Part B is sent to targeted respondents:  members of the annual conference episcopacy committee, members of the annual conference delegation to general conference and jurisdictional conference, and members of the conference leadership team (excluding the bishop).  Part B begins with specific questions about the individual bishop such as time management,  strategies, and other information the respondent might want to share.  If then includes a section on Gifts Assessment–a series of 39 characteristics which are scored on a scale of 1 to 5.  A final question seeks additional comments from the respondent.
 
Our committee calculates the average scores among all 39 characteristics for each active bishop.  These scores and responses to the open-ended questions form part of our evaluation file.
 
In addition, a 26-page study of the jurisdiction was completed with specific examinations of each episcopal area. This study included the history of episcopal appointments, historical trends in membership, worship attendance, professions of faith,  resident population,  membership per capita, Hispanic representation scores,  disposable income per resident,  local church expenditures per attendee, expenditure elasticities,  capital funding, net spending ratios,  and the payment of apportionments.
 
Personal interviews were held with selected church leaders within an episcopal area.  Some were conducted by committee members from their own episcopal areas, and others were conducted by committee members from other episcopal areas.
 
Our committee has met seven times during the quadrennium and is scheduled to meet three more times.  We have exchanged hundreds of e-mails and text messages between meetings.

[1] In a sermon earlier in the conference, Baughman had included a series of sentences beginning with the words “I’ll be dammed..” For example, Baughman said, “I’ll be dammed if I play it safe when God is calling me to work it dangerous. I’ll be dammed if I worry more about upsetting the apple cart than I do about upsetting God….”   Note that Baughman used the word “dammed” and not “damned.” Note too that Bishop Bledsoe referred to Baughman’s words but did not quote them.

General Conference Posts

Hello Friends,

I been busy tending to and then recovering from United Methodist politics.

In case you are interested, here is a link to my blog from our United Methodist General Conference in late April and early May.

Warning – They are a little on the depressing side   — like church politics itself!

http://www.gc2012conversations.com/author/rebekah_miles/

Holy Saturday: Dead Bodies, Strawberries and Sushi

Easter shopping at the grocery store today, Katherine and I filled up our cart with great stuff – strawberries, chocolate, ice cream, salmon, and even some expensive sushi that Katherine loves but we rarely buy. Eating sushi on the way home, she told me, “You know, Mom, I’m feeling pretty good about Jesus right now. . . . Because he died, we get to eat sushi.” 

 

I was tempted to launch into a minivan discourse on Jesus’ suffering and death and the sober character of Holy Saturday, but came to my senses pretty quick.  Katherine is right. We ought to be feeling pretty good about Jesus right now. Because he died and rose from the dead, we get to eat strawberries and ice cream and chocolate and maybe even some sushi.  If Katherine is getting ahead of herself this weekend, that’s understandable. She knows a party is coming.   

 

I spend most Holy Saturdays having fun with my daughters as we get ready for Easter. My only truly grief-filled Holy Week was in 2009 – a few months after my mother’s death. That Holy Saturday was given over to thinking about dead bodies – Christ’s dead body, my mother’s dead body, my grandmother’s dead body.

 

Here are reflections about Holy Saturday and dead bodies written while I was grieving.  This is an excerpt from my book on grief that is coming out with Abingdon Press later this month – When the One You Love is Gone.

 

Holy Saturday and Dead Bodies

It is Holy Saturday—the still-point between the crucifixion on Friday and the resurrection on Sunday. To mark the day, I have been looking at paintings of Jesus in the tomb and ran across one that was unlike any other I had seen before: Hans Holbein’s  “Christ Entombed.” The Jesus of this painting looks so . . .  dead.  His face is grey; his mouth hangs open; his eyes are wide, in a fixed empty stare. The painting is horizontal, on a long narrow canvas.  We see Jesus as if he was enclosed in a narrow tomb, and we were viewing him from the side. His body is bruised. His wounds gape. It is a gruesome picture, repulsive frankly.

            Somehow, when I have thought of Jesus and the passion, I have tended to skip straight from the cross to the empty tomb.  It’s easier that way.  If I do think about the dead Jesus, something like Michelangelo’s Pieta comes to mind; there is an elegant beauty to his limp form, the clean white marble, his features so delicate.  That’s my kind of death. 

Holbein’s Christ is in no way beautiful, in no way clean, in no way delicate.  Here is a picture of Jesus that shows him as a corpse, a dead man, really truly dead.

            A dead Jesus is even more scandalous than a dying one. Christians should be wearing little tombs around their necks instead of crosses.  The astonishing thing isn’t just that God in Christ was dying but that God in Christ was actually dead, entombed. 

            Really, that’s a lot more shocking than the resurrection. After all, what is a little bodily resurrection for the Almighty? How hard could that be? But God dying? It’s beyond comprehension.  

            The dead, entombed Jesus with his ashen face and open wounds takes on new power for me this Holy Saturday.  Not quite ten weeks ago, in one of those private “visitation” rooms at the funeral home, I was standing with the women of my family by my mother’s corpse, her really, truly dead body.  She had asked for a simple burial—a plain wooden box, no embalming, no mortuary beauty treatments.

            There her body lay, just as it had come from the hospital, just as she had come from the hospital, on a gurney with a sheet beneath her.  She was in her skimpy hospital gown and still wore bandages.

            Because she had died of an infection, or maybe just because she was dead, we were advised by the staff of the funeral home to put on rubber gloves to care for our mother’s precious body. Our sister-in-law Susan brushed her hair, thin and grey in death as it had not been in life until the very end.  Deborah took off the stained bandages and cleaned her wounds. We tried to remove the adhesive from her skin and to fix her body as best we could, but there was a limit to how much we could do. She was so battered—the incisions, the abrasions, the bruises.  No amount of tending and care could change that heart-breaking fact. 

As we cleaned her body, I remembered all the times she had cared for our bodies. These breasts provided our first food. These lips kissed our wounds. These stiff hands, once so warm and soft, had held ours through illness and night terrors. Now she lay there, her body shrunken, her hands stiff, her lips cold. 

Earlier in the day, Katherine, with the help of her aunt, had picked out the burial clothes: underwear, a simple black skirt, a turquoise turtleneck and a jacket.  The sandals Katherine had picked out wouldn’t stay on, so I took off my knee-high black boots and gave them to Mom . . . for keeps. Our twenty year-old niece, Zoe, added make-up: a little blush, some lipstick. Mom’s friend Daudet put on simple gold earrings.  We decided she looked pretty good . . . for a dead person. 

            As we dressed our mother, I remembered a day nineteen years earlier when my sister and I had stood with our mother by the corpse of her mother, dressing her for the last time, trying to get her stiff arms into the sleeves of the dress, working to get the panty hose slipped over her not so yielding legs. We sang hymns. We cried. We laughed.  

As we prepared our mother’s body, just as we had prepared our grandmother’s those many years before, I was struck by how very dead they looked, really truly dead. In the weeks following my mother’s death, I could not get the images of her sick body and her dead body out of my mind.

            Holbein’s Christ, ashen and entombed, is so powerful for me this year because I see now that long before my mother was wounded, long before she died and lay before us, an ashen corpse on a gurney, even long before she was born, God had come in human form and taken on not only human life, but also its woundedness and death in all its ugliness and brutality.  Christ took on not just his own woundedness and death, but my mother’s as well.  He took it on not just for that time, but for our time and for all time. 

 

The Resurrected Body

At the end of this Holy Week, I have been thinking not just about the wounded and dead body, but the resurrected one, too. Christians have speculated for millennia about what the resurrected body will look like. Medieval paintings sometimes portray fields of bodies being resurrected from the grave in what was considered at the time to be an ideal form—that of vibrant young men without blemish or defect. The young men climbing out of graves are very beautiful, but it seems somehow obscene.  What about the children and the women, the old people and even the sagging middle-aged people like me?  What about the bodies of the wounded and the infirm? 

            When the resurrected Christ appeared to his followers, he bore the wounds of the crucifixion in his resurrected body (John 20:19-29). Might it be true of the saints as well? Augustine, reflecting on the bodies of martyrs, wondered what would happen to their wounds at the resurrection. The “marks of the wounds,” he wrote, “will add lustre to their appearance.” These scars will be considered not blemishes but “marks of virtue.”[1] 

            This Holy Week I wonder what will count as beautiful in eternity. The very wounds and “defects” that we consider ugly in this world may be marks of beauty in the resurrected body. Perhaps my mother’s wounded body was beautiful in a way beyond our imagining. Her resurrected body may bear the marks of the wounds she took in this life, and those wounds may be her adornment, her beauty.  Might the same be true of our grief?  The wounds of the heart borne in this life may be our adornment in the next.

 

 

 


[1] Augustine, Book 22:19, City of God in Basic Writings of Augustine, Volume 2 (Kessinger Publishing, 2006), 640. See also Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2007).

And then Mary said, “Man Oh Man. It’s a good life!” (Finding God at Home, Continued)

When the girls were in preschool, I overheard Anna telling Katherine the Christmas story. As a prop, she was pointing to a page she had colored in Sunday School. It showed a bright purple stable with the Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus flanked by a couple of pink and green cows. She had told the full composite story and was right at the part where Luke adds,  “And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  But Anna’s version abandoned the standard Lukan ending for a surprise ending of her own.  Mary looked around the stable at the shepherds and the animals and the Kings and her husband and her little baby and said: “Man oh Man, it’s a good life!”

In the last few posts, I have written about God in Christ taking on our struggles when coming in human form.  I’m not alone in focusing mostly on the down side of the incarnation for God. We talk about God in Christ bearing our guilt, incurring the penalty for our sin, participating in our suffering, and taking on death. I believe that’s all true. But if this is the sum total of what it meant for God to come into human life and to walk on the earth, I would imagine that this was not a trip God was looking forward to.

We emphasize the suffering that Christ took on in human form, but maybe it was more than that.  Perhaps God came into the world not just to take on our suffering and death but also to embrace the gifts of our created life.  In Christ, God knew the comfort of a baby at its mother’s breast, the delight of a child running under the wide sky, the satisfaction of ordinary work well done, and the pleasures of good food and drink in the company of dear friends.  Having created the world with all its many gifts and having made humans in his own image, maybe God was eager to try it out for himself.

This is not to minimize the enormity and hardship of what it might possibly have meant for the second person of the Trinity to empty himself and to be born in human likeness. But maybe, just maybe, some small part of the second person of the Trinity was looking forward to the trip.  Surely there were moments in Christ’s life in Galilee when he could echo Mary’s sentiments from Anna’s peculiar birth narrative: “Man oh Man, it’s a good life.”


Holy Crap: “I’m a mother; I deal in turds” (Finding God at Home, Part II)

Holy Crap: “I’m a mother; I deal in turds.”  (Finding God at Home, Part II)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about poop. Years ago at a pool, the lifeguards blew their whistles and cleared everybody out of the water – mostly little kids, including mine. I went with several other moms to ask a young man, a lifeguard, what the problem was.  He pointed down to a small brown mass about the size of large marble, sitting there at the bottom of the shallow end of the pool. “We think it’s a turd. They’ve gone to get the special equipment to remove it.”  We, the mothers, looked at each other and rolled our eyes. I stepped down into the water and picked it up.  It was a brown rock.  “Ma’am, you shouldn’t have done that.  That could have been dangerous.”  I was flabbergasted.  “For goodness sake, I’m mother. I deal in turds.”

I can’t say that I like dealing in turds, but you get used to it after awhile. When you have little bitty kids, excrement is a part of the deal; it’s just the cost of loving your children.

Most parents can tell you about times when poop ended up not only in the diaper but also in the tub, on the floor, on the pew, on the piano bench, on their hands and arms, in their hair, sometimes even on the face.  It just happens.

Now that my husband Len and I no longer deal regularly with our daughters’ turds, we have our puppy’s excrement to contend with – not to mention our own.  And our toilets have this terrible habit of overflowing only when Len is away from home.  I often wonder: How do they know?

Maybe dealing in turds brings along potential spiritual benefits.  In Kyoto Japan there is a religious community, begun in 1904, whose primary spiritual activity is toilet cleaning. They go door-to-door begging to clean toilets and have a special prayer to accompany the cleaning:  “Oh Light of Heaven and Earth! accept this humble act of service as a means to worship Thee. . .”

Sadly, the movement has not taken off.  It’s too bad. Would that the Christians in my neighborhood took up this practice! (You can imagine what a challenge it would be to build a church growth campaign around spiritual toilet cleaning.  “Come clean toilets with us!”  “Open hearts, open minds, clean toilets.” etc. And for the United Methodist pastors out there, try putting that on your “dashboard.”)*

It is frequently noted that Gandhi cleaned the public toilets in his ashram and insisted that all community members take their turn. He even called the toilets his temple. Mother Teresa was also known for her ardent toilet cleaning.  When someone asked her what she would do when she was no longer the head of her order she replied, “I am first class in cleaning toilets.”  “I have learned to clean them beautifully.”  Of course, she didn’t wait until she was no longer the head but cleaned toilets regularly and encouraged those around her to do the same.  She said, “We are at Jesus’ disposal. If he wants you to be sick in bed, if he wants you to proclaim His work in the street, if he wants you to clean the toilets all day, that’s all right, everything is all right. We must say, ‘I belong to you. You can do whatever you like.’ And this is our strength. This is the joy of the Lord.”**

I’m pleased to know that saintly people clean toilets, though I am not sure what to make of all the accolades. This is, after all, one of the most ordinary of human activities. Clearly, you don’t have to be a saint to clean toilets.  But, now that I think about it, cleaning toilets joyfully and as an act of devotion might be one of those hidden signs of sainthood.

Last night at supper I was telling Len and the girls about a controversy in Christian history – Did Jesus poop? Some Gnostics argued the negative. The early Christian record includes Valentinus reflecting on Jesus’ excrement (or, in this case, lack thereof):  “He was continent, enduring all things. Jesus digested divinity; he ate and drank in a special way, without excreting his solids.”***

Our daughters aren’t buying it. Katherine told us that “Valentinus was ridiculous.” Anna took it a step further.  “If we had talked about this in my confirmation class, I never would have agreed to be confirmed. Who wants to join a religion that argues about something so dumb?! Of course Jesus pooped!”  They both left the table.  (As Milan Kundera put it, “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil.”****)

You may have seen the youtube video with the Christian young people in Paris who staged a protest in the fall during the play “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God” by director Romeo Castellucci.  The production, which played all over Europe last year, featured a backdrop of a beautiful, black and white print of Christ’s face in an otherwise stark white set. (It was Antonello da Messina’s 15th century portrait of Christ offering a blessing.)  In the play a son cares for his father who has dementia and is very ill; the father keeps messing his pants. There is a lot of fake poop involved in the play and some of it gets all over the white set, including Jesus’ face. Some articles reported that poop even gets thrown at the picture and comes out of the picture. Predictably, there was a lot of controversy about the poop on Jesus.

Now I have to tell you, this does not sound like a play I would look forward to seeing.  In fact, it may have been a terrible play. I do not know.  So please don’t read this as a defense of a play that I know next to nothing about.

But … the longer I think about it, the more powerful this image of Jesus becomes.  Surely Jesus, the one who welcomed and touched little children, who identified with the outcast, who spent so much of his ministry caring for the sick, healing them and touching them, surely this Jesus had, on occasion, to deal in other people’s excrement.

If Gandhi and Mother Theresa and so many saints willingly dealt in turds as an act of love, I’m guessing that Jesus might have too.  The idea of poop on Jesus’ face, however disconcerting, is a powerful image. This is the scandal of the incarnation –  not only that God in Christ took on one of the lowliest aspects of human life – defecating, but that God in Christ might have willingly dealt in other people’s poop.

This is God we are talking about. He deals in turds.  It’s just the cost of loving your children.

[Note: I almost called my blog “Holy Crap.” I couldn’t do it in the end; it seemed too flippant.  But when you read this post and the last you might understand why I was tempted.  For the record, you may be glad to know that I think I'm done talking about excrement for while.]

*Many United Methodist pastors are now expected to post their weekly numbers online on a “dashboard” – worship attendance, Sunday School attendance, membership growth, etc.

** Brother Angelo Devananda, ed., Jesus, the Word to be Spoken (Servant Publications, 1986).

*** Excerpt from Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations (Doubleday, 1987), 239. Originally from Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.59.3.

**** Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper and Row, 1984), 246.

“I saw God pee pee and poo poo on the floor!” (Finding God at Home, Part I)

Anna, Beka, and Katherine, about the time of this story

“I saw God pee pee and poo poo on the floor!” (Finding God at Home, Part I)

One of our daughters’ favorite rituals is to obstruct the favorite rituals of their parents. However maddening, their obstructions usually end up providing moments of enlightenment for us.  This is clearly not Anna and Katherine’s intention.

When our daughters were little, we enjoyed a regular practice at the end of each day where we would look back for holy moments. When all the other nighttime rituals were done, we gathered on their double bed and asked, “Where did you see God today?”  For a while the girls cooperated beautifully, naming high points of their day – a family walk, a favorite movie, a piece of candy. But one night when Anna was almost 3 and Katherine about a year and a half, Anna upended our ritual.

“Anna, where did you see God today?”  Jumping up and down on their bed, Anna yelled, “I saw God pee pee and poo poo on the floor.” She liked the line so much, she made it into a chant to keep time with her jumping.  “I saw God pee pee and poo poo.  I saw God pee pee and poo poo. . . . Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha  . . . ”

I was not laughing. This is the almighty we are talking about, the maker of the universe. God is not going around pee peeing and poo pooing on the floor. I began to stutter my objections, but my wise husband stopped me.  If I left Anna alone, she would quickly tire of this game; but if I tried to stop her, she would still be at it when she was 13.

So I shut up.  But she didn’t tire. She kept it up, night after night, the same sacrilegious, interminable chanting and jumping. And it got worse; Katherine took up the chant, though altered to suit her more limited verbal range: “God peepee poopoo! God peepee poopoo! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!”

Ha … ha … ha. My husband now claims this went on for less than a week, but it felt to me like a couple of decades. One night, I had had enough.  It was too much. Sitting there on the bed listening to all this racket about God’s excrement, I couldn’t take it anymore, “Girls, wait a minute, this is God we are talking about.  God is the greatest … the biggest … the strongest … This is the almighty we are talking about, the creator of the universe!  God did not peepee and poopoo on the floor!”

Anna stopped jumping, took my face between her hands, and said very slowly, so that I, with my limited capacities, could understand.  “But mama . . .  God . . .  was . . .  a . . . baby!”

Suddenly, I understood: “Oh yeah. God pee peed and poo pooed on the floor.”

Then, the deeper truth came on me. Anna and her cohort of three year olds were all at various stages of potty training.  This was the issue of the day for them – their point of pride and shame.  Of course it mattered to her that God pee pee peed and poo pood on the floor!

Somehow Anna knew that long before God took on the form of adulthood, God in Christ had taken on childhood with all its struggles. Like Anna, God knew what it was like to pee pee and poo poo on the floor.

It would be hard to find a better image for the incarnation  — the word we use to say that God took on human flesh. When God assumed human form in Christ – the form of an infant, a young child — God took on the struggles of childhood, including, no doubt, pee peeing and poo pooing on the floor.  And God took on all the struggles of our life too.

Honestly, ordinary life in the household sometimes strikes me as boring and frustrating and maddening.  Some days, it doesn’t seem like a likely place to encounter God.  But then I remember the incarnation.  God in Christ chose to come into the world as a child in in a family, in a household.  And still today, there is no better place to meet God head on, than in the ordinary life of a household.

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