Author Archives: 50 Days of Fabulous

Being Poor Isn’t Really So Bad…and other Hallmark Cards

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

I have a sick and twisted fascinating with sympathy cards.  Or, more specifically, with the sick and twisted theology frequently on display within sympathy cards.  Cliches like “Tears bring rainbows!”, “Your departed loved one is now a star in the sky!”, or “Everything happens for a reason!” fascinate me for hours in the Hallmark store, and when I manage to find a sympathy card that I don’t want to rip to shreds, I buy many copies at a time.

It is with this hobby in mind that I notice that the Beatitudes are decidedly un-pastoral–at least in a modern, Hallmarkian sense.  When speaking to the poor, or the meek, and addressing their plight, Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain it away.  He doesn’t try to tell them that being poor really isn’t so bad; he tells them that one day, they won’t be poor anymore.  And conversely, when he addresses those currently full, he tells them that one day, they will be hungry.  The underlying idea is that being poor is bad.  Full stop.  Being hungry is also bad.  And it is bad because when you are poor, and when you are hungry, you suffer.  Jesus doesn’t try to explain it away, or spiritualize it into something else.  He doesn’t pull any opium-of-the-masses-magic on this.  In the scheme of the Beatitudes, there are negatives in this world, and there are positives.  Being hungry is definitely a negative.

It is a weird, privileged, preoccupation we have with spiritualizing these lines into something else.  Perhaps because we, as (mostly) middle-class, comfortable, and powerful Christians in this country don’t have a whole lot of direct experience with actually being poor, or hungry for very long.  The situations Jesus describes are a good deal removed from most of our daily lives, and so, in order to relate, we flip some things around, because, after all, we want to be included in the good stuff too!

However, the danger we run with that theological rearranging is that we end up excusing some really awful circumstances that are in our control to change.  When we spiritualize poverty, that obfuscates actual poverty.  When we construct ‘hunger’ as ‘wanting spiritual nourishment’, that prevents us from addressing those who are actually without food.  In our bid to be included, we may trample those who need care the most.

(PSA: if you’re looking for some amazing sympathy cards, might I recommend these from Emily McDowell?  Some of the language is adult, but the theology is on point.)

 

 

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

Accidental Poverty

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

My favorite part of being a priest is listening to people’s stories.  All people, whether they know it or not, have remarkable stories, and you can learn a lot from listening.

One thing I’ve noticed in listening to the people who pass through our food pantry in particular, is how accidental poverty is.  One person drove long haul trucks, another lived with her family in a lovely suburban home.  One little old lady worked for years at a retail store.  But then–Something Happened, and everything changed.    An illness, a death in the family, an unexpected job loss–something happens, and suddenly, the promised American Dream of financial security for people who do the right thing and work hard goes up in smoke. And they arrive here, in my church’s food pantry.

No one expects to be poor, to rely on the kindness of others for survival.  Especially in this country, we are told from birth that poverty can be easily avoided if you just play by the rules.  Poverty, the culture tells us, is less a run of bad luck that could happen to anyone, and more something that you deserve, by making bad choices.  Good, responsible people don’t end up poor, the thinking goes.

Yet, here stands Jesus, telling us that those who are full now will be hungry.  And those who are hungry will one day be fed.  Jesus disconnects ‘deserving’ from the notion of poverty in the beatitudes, and reminds us that our call to be compassionate must extend to all, because we all may be hungry one day.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

Excess

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

On the third Saturday of each month, the young adults of St. Paul’s and I operate a feeding program.  It is meant to be a supplement to all the others; the name is Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, and it is administered through the state by the USDA.  The state receives block grants to purchase excess food from American food producers, and then give them out once a month.  Because the emphasis is on excess, the food available varies widely, and with little rationale.  For a year running, we had more instant mashed potatoes than we could deal with.  I threatened that if another box of mashed potatoes entered my church, I would mix them all up and make a snowman in protest.  For another 7 months, we had 4 types of cranberry products each month: dried cranberries, frozen cranberries, cranberry juice, and cranberry sauce.  (We also had Cheerios and some frozen blueberries.  For variety.)

The frustrating nature of what we have on offer each month  seems mostly to bother the volunteers.  The patrons, I think, have been through this rodeo and have adjusted their expectations. Every month, I survey the parade of fruit juice, peanut butter, and carbs, and wonder how on earth anyone with a chronic illness is supposed to survive on this food.  Every month, the volunteers and I hand out the food to cheerful and excited patrons, who explain excitedly to us what they plan to cook with it. “This here cranberry concentrate?  That’s real good poured over ice cream.  Like a sundae but better!” “Y’all tried these eggs right here?  5 dozen real eggs, just frozen in a container!  You could make some real good french toast with this, I bet.”

While I still would beg my congressional representatives on bended knee to figure out a better way to feed people, I think a powerful part of what we do on Saturdays is that conversation. Swapping recipes changes the dynamic–we’re no longer Nice Privileged People Helping the Poor.  Now, we’re People, who are on the same team, fighting the same fight against hunger.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

I’m Holding Out for a Hero

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

Like everyone else, I’ve been following the news these past months with curiosity normally reserved for Game of Thrones spoilers.  Each weekday, as the day draws to a close, I anxiously refresh the news sites, awaiting that day’s new bombshell of a crisis.

It’s hard, during these tumultous times, to know which way is up.  When every day brings a new level of panic and uncertainty, it is instinctive to look for someone who appears to know What We Should Do Now.  A Hero, who can lead us out of this mess.

Unfortunately, those seem few on the ground.  While we’ve seen glimpses of principled behavior, on the whole, knights riding to the rescue haven’t appeared on the horizon.  But I wonder, upon reading Luke’s beatitudes, if they don’t stand as a warning against knights in general?

For as tempting as it is to depend wholly on a person, a single figure to solve our problems, and tell us what to do, the uncomfortable reality remains that no hero is perfect.  The one who knows what to do today may be clueless tomorrow.  The one who is laughing now will be mourning tomorrow.  The one who has food today, will be starving tomorrow.  Nothing human is certain.

And yet, we keep trying to turn humans into perfect idols to solve our problems for us.

Jesus, however, doesn’t send us idols.  (I seem to recall some rather harsh language about idols, actually.)  Jesus instead gives us reason, empathy, and each other, with our varied gifts.  He asks each of us to do our part–to weep with the weeping, to celebrate with the laughing, to resist alongside the oppressed, and to feed along with the well-fed.  Together, we are the hero we need.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

 

Grief and Fritos

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

The first hospital vigil I ever kept was a few weeks into my ordination.  A young mother of two teenage children had sat down to dinner with her husband and kids, had a massive heart attack, and never regained consciousness.  We sat with her at the hospital for 48 hours, shell-shocked, as the doctors tried valiantly to think of something miraculous and new, to science this problem.  Her parents drove down immediately, and joined our vigil.

I was a baby priest–still a transitional deacon–and was struggling with what, exactly, I should be doing during all these hours.  Reading the Bible?  Praying unceasingly?  Offering sage and comforting advice?  None of these seemed achievable–but I had the idea in my brain that I needed to be Holy, Wise, and therefore, Serious.  And Serious Priests, I felt, probably didn’t show up to the hospital with wet hair and get distracted by why the coffee tasted like plastic.  I settled for crouching silently in the corner and thinking Serious thoughts.

Meanwhile, the woman’s mother, around 3 am on the second night, discovered a package of Fritos, and began to read it to her husband.  “Honey, it has the strangest things in here.  Why do you suppose that is?  What do you suppose these things are?  Corn syrup.  Malto-dex….” she trailed off, and then made a complete mangle of some chemical name.  Her husband looked at her and burst out laughing.  She looked shocked, then tried again, and started giggling.  The two teenagers, who minutes before had been sitting in shocked silence, started coming up with increasingly outlandish ingredients for Fritos.  Corn mash!  Hydro-mashed-up-corn-pellets! And falling over with gales of laughter.

For a few moments, they could forget what was happening, and relish the sheer absurdity of whatever goes into corn chips.  For a few minutes, they could find comfort in each other, and bear up for what was coming.  Laughter, and Fritos ingredients, are a clear gift, even if weeping comes later.

Jesus reminds us to recognize the gift of being present to our emotions, to the location life has placed us. Trying to be something we aren’t in the moment, or trying to be something we think we’re supposed to be, isn’t loving to ourselves or others.

Being authentic locates us in God. Mourning or laughing – or feeling both seemingly conflicting emotions together – God holds them all and holds us in these moments.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.

What Breaks Your Heart…And Makes You Laugh?

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”   -Luke 6:25

 

My brother is a professional comedy writer, and I am a priest.  We pretty much have the same job, as I remind him regularly.  Both of our vocations are concerned with finding the subtlest meaning in life, and transforming it so that people can better understand.

What is appropriate subject matter is a hot topic of conversation in both of our communities.  The church community struggles right now with its stance towards the government, the rising tide of anger and hatred, and wonders what its role might be.  How do we preach prophetically without alienating those who need to hear us?  How do we stay pastoral to those who need comforting, while recalling that for many, comfort can only be found on the far side of challenge?  And, oh yes, we do still need that IRS safeguard, and the long-time parishioners who look askance at all mention of anything political from the pulpit.  How to navigate this brave new world we inhabit?

The comedy community, my brother tells me, has a catchphrase:  punch up, don’t punch down.  It signifies the difference between mocking someone or something with more power than you, and mocking someone or something with less power than you.  Generally speaking, it is acceptable to punch up; it is not acceptable to punch down.  Eddie Izzard’s jokes about the clueless and privileged British conquering an empire through the use of flags is funny; attempting to mock ethnicities or nations because they were conquered is not even okay.

Jesus’ warning to those who laugh now seems to me to be a warning against punching down.  Don’t be so quick to laugh at those who are less fortunate, who are less privileged than yourself.  Don’t add to their pain and suffering.  The role of the faithful is to side with the unfortunate, and the lowest of the low, standing so close to them as to be unable to distinguish daylight between them and us.  We cannot be faithful followers of Jesus if we separate ourselves from the least and the lost through mockery.

Megan Castellan is our writer this week. She serves as Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and diocesan youth coordinator for the Metro Kansas City area.  Her ongoing adventures and strong opinions are chronicled in her blog Red Shoes, Funny Shirt  and on Twitter @revlucymeg. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, playing with yarn, throwing jellybeans at politicians she disagrees with on TV, and cheering on KC-based sportsball teams.