Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"I am the bread of life."

All Saints Chapel, CDSP
John 6:35-40

Bowl of bread dough
Extra flour
Copies of recipe

Instructions: Tear off some bread dough—let yourself be generous—pass the bowl to the next person. Play with it while we’re talking. Follow dough with box of baggies, for take-home.

If you’ve ever been hungry, you will understand.
If you’ve ever made dinner for the people you love,
you will understand.
If you’ve ever kneaded bread,
and baked it, and eaten it,
you will understand.
Our bodies know this stuff.
Our ancestors knew it.
We have always known how to feed each other.

I’m going to give you the recipe,
for what you’re holding in your hands.
Don’t worry about remembering;
there are copies in the back if you want one.

1 package active dry yeast
1 ¼ cups warm water (about 110 degrees).
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
5 to 5 ½ cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water.
You want it comfortable on the inside of your wrist;
not too tepid, not hot enough to burn you.
Yeast is alive.
You need to wake it up, not kill it.

Stir in the salt, sugar, oil, and two eggs.
Gradually add about 4 cups of the flour,
until your dough is stiff enough to work with.
Shake some flour onto the counter,
or a breadboard.
Turn the dough out onto it.
Flour your hands.

And then you start kneading.

I have no clear memory of learning this motion.
And it’s not like baking was an everyday thing, when I was little.
I remember doing it a few times, occasionally.
Knowing the kid I was, probably reluctantly.
But when I started baking on my own, years later,
my body remembered it.

Place the heels of your hands against the dough.
In the beginning, there is no resistance.
You’re working with a blob.
Push it away from you.

Give it a quarter turn,
in whatever direction comes naturally.
Fold it over your thumb.
Move your thumb out of the way.
Place your hands on the dough,
and push it away from you.

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

Add flour as you need to.
The dough will start to push back against you.
This is good.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour.
What you’re doing, is working little knots of protein into strands.
This is what gives the dough the elasticity it needs to rise,
and the texture when you bake it.

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

After awhile, the turning and folding becomes one motion.
You find your rhythm.
Even if it’s your first time,
you won’t have to be taught how to do this.
You already learned it, from your ancestors.
It’s already encoded in the way you move your muscles.
Your body knows.
Let your sense of touch, teach you.

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

Are your hands sticky?
There’s more flour in the back.
Feel free to get up and grab some.

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

“Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Push. Turn. Fold. Push. Turn. Fold.

When your shoulders feel like they’ve had a good workout,
and the dough has taken in about all the flour that it will,
stop kneading.
The recipe I gave you says, 5 to 20 minutes.
That’s how variable, and intuitive, this is.
The yeast and flour interact with the liquids,
and with your sense of what feels right.
You have to love it into being.
It doesn’t just emerge on its own.

Put the dough back in a bowl,
cover it,
and leave it in a warm place.
Either in the oven, turned off, with a bowl of warm water,
on a heating pad,
in a sunny spot.
Do something else for an hour and a half.
Go write a paper. Take a walk.
The yeast will release carbon dioxide,
against the strands of gluten.
The dough will rise.

I always wonder,
if God had the same reaction that I do,
the first time God made life.
“Wow—would you look at that? It grew!”

It’s always a surprise,
and it means that everything is happening as it should be.

A side note:
I live in the dorm, on the third floor.
Our refrigerators are stuffed.
So when I prepared this dough,
last night,
I wrapped it in plastic
and left it on about six square inches of shelf.
I’d never left dough overnight before;
what did I know?
When I got up this morning,
it had burst the bonds of injustice,
and was spilling all over everything.

Now I understand why scripture writers,
and community organizers,
use the metaphor of leavening.
Yeast is alive.
This stuff doesn’t even need heat.
It will breathe, and the bread will grow.
It’s faster, if you do it like they tell you.
But it happens, nonetheless.

You let it rise, then you punch it down.
Feel it exhale, against your fist.
Work the extra air out.
Braid it, or shape it the way you want it.
And then—I love this—you let it rise again.
There is Easter, even here.

To finish off this loaf,
wash it with egg yolk,
and dust it with poppy seeds.
And then you bake it. 350 degrees.
A full-size loaf takes about half an hour in the oven.

A friend lent me a book,
two years ago,
shortly before she graduated and moved back to Portland.
I never gave it back to her.
I’ll be able to, now.

The book is Sleeping with Bread.
It looks like a children’s book,
and it’s about that comforting.
It’s about the Ignatian exercise called the examen.
The book is an expansion on settings
and forms and communities you could use this practice in.
At the heart of it, are two questions:

For what moment today am I most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?

It’s about living into the awareness of gratitude.
About learning to be true to yourself.
About listening to the voice of God within you,
through the activities that give you life.

The title comes from a story
about children evacuated from the bombing raids during World War II.
The kids were living in refugee camps.
They’d lost everything:
homes, families, all of the anchors that make any of us feel safe.
They were scared.
They couldn’t sleep at night.

Someone got the idea,
of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime.
It actually helped them sleep.
They could remember,
“I had food today. I will have food tomorrow.”

Yeast. Sugar. Flour. Oil. Water.
Joy. Sadness. Fear. Love. Relief.

These are the ingredients that God bakes bread with.

If you’ve made it before, you might have realized,
that what you’re holding is challah.
Bread of festivity.
It’s at the center of the Jewish weekly ritual of Shabbat.
You begin with the ordinary: flour, yeast, eggs, water.
Lift them to the sacred:
love of community, love of family and friends, love of God.

I did this for a couple of reasons:
I don’t bake for sustenance.
I bake for fun.
I do it because it gets me into my body,
in a way that feels strong.
I’m not aware of fatigue, when I do this.
I’m feeling life interact beneath my hands.

It’s miraculous.
And it’s the most ordinary craft in the world.

I also love the way this dough feels.
It’s smooth, and silky.
Almost like skin.

This is what I did over Spring Break,
when I was preparing to think about this sermon.
I baked it on a Friday,
in my best friend’s kitchen.
She is ancestrally Jewish,
and a practicing Christian.
We ate challah and goat cheese all weekend.
We made our own ritual.

We’re about to do something with the same deep roots
in community, food, and love.
The Eucharistic bread we use in chapel,
always comes from one of us.
We bake it, according to the sacristy’s recipe.
If it doesn’t get done, the sacristans panic—
they know, as only they can,
that the Body of Christ is everyone,
and we all have work to do.
Lizette’s not kidding when she tells you,
show up for your rota assignments.
It takes all of us, to make this happen.

We remember the ancient words of Jesus:
eat this bread, drink this cup.
Remember me, and I will be with you.

The bread is blessed, and broken, before us—
the way it has been offered for two thousand years.
It is given to us.
We hold out our hands, and we receive.

We eat this bread, which gives us life.
The body of Christ, broken for all of us.
The bread of resurrection.

There is enough for everyone.
Come and eat.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


A year, a day, and an hour or two ago, my dermatologist called me back and told me, “You have melanoma.”

I couldn’t post yesterday, because I was at my graduating class retreat, offline. And I’m really all worded out, about the work and the witnessing I've been doing for a year. This is what I have.

Caravaggio. Photo from here.

I am struck by the physical, touchable, bodily, reality of the Resurrection. In all the ways that can be expressed. I’ve had to learn what my body, my God, and my community have taught me. And I am still learning.

My advisor was one of two faculty co-leaders of our retreat, with our Dean of Students. I’d asked her for time to connect yesterday. I didn’t even really know what I needed—I just knew that I would want to check in. So during free time, we found a quiet table.

The irony of this, is that I have laryngitis and a cough. I can croak, weakly and painfully. Can’t sing a note; nothing comes out. This almost never happens to me. And she’d also been my group leader, during singing and storytelling that morning. (I’d asked us all to stand up and sing the Troparion, trampling death.) So she opened our talk with a gentle observation about how my body is processing the anniversary.

I answered, “One of the first things I remember you asking is, ‘What is God doing with you?’ I had no way of knowing. Now I know, that what could have killed me, healed me.”

Which is absolutely true. We talked about transformation, from fragility to fearlessness. Street ministry, and how to continue doing that. (She said something that I don't want to forget, when I talked about having trouble translating the street to the church: "Maybe the street is the church.") Things connected, directly and less so: choices, courage, creativity, being a good steward of what God has given me (i.e., maintaining healthcare). She said I'd done more in a year, than a lot of people do in much more time.

“I knew that if I was open to this, I could learn from it. And I stuck to that choice.”

She said something about the way I make meaning. And how she’s been trying to communicate something along those lines to her students. They’re struggling with it. She said,

“If I could put you into words, that’s what I would say to them.”

That is exactly how I feel, about the resurrection that I know, and trust, and touch. The only way I can get there is story. I don’t hang out in my head anymore; interferon and exhaustion make that difficult. I process everything through my body and my heart. I speak more honestly than I ever could when I was well. I’ve come to love this deeper language. And right now, physically and metaphorically, I am a storyteller with laryngitis.

It is I. Touch me, and see.

I have no way to tell you, but to show you. This is where I have been. I grab my wrist: this is resurrection. I know it, because my body and soul have taught me. I believe it, because I get it. As well as a body can, which itself has never died.

Today, as we were all getting ready to leave, she almost off-handedly gave me a rock. California jade, from near where the Russian River meets the ocean. It fits easily, between my fingers and thumb. A touchstone.

I love this body wisdom.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

“How did you live for a year, outside?”

Pray for the woman to whom I asked this question. I can’t give her name. God will know.

She started to answer me, totally willingly until we ran out of time. We both want to talk more. When I understand her story, I will share what she permits me to.

People seem to react in fear to me, when I tell stories. Particularly when I connect my life, to the people I meet who are homeless. I’m trying to wrap my head around that, so I can learn to communicate the street to the church in a way that translates. Because the reaction I get from kind, compassionate, middle-class people is not helpful, and it makes me feel terribly alone.

I have the best, best friend there ever was. Her job is secure. These two facts remind me that I’m safe, when I think about life after graduation. She’ll help me bridge the transition, and I know I’ll be okay.

The truth: The only thing that keeps any of us safe, is love. Your fear does not help me. And it certainly does not help people who can’t advocate effectively for themselves. Go outside, and listen. Ask questions until you understand. Give volunteer hours: drive people to appointments, or soup kitchens. (The amount of walking that some of them do, in the course of a normal day, contributes to destroying their bodies.) Advocate for them, within what remains of the social-service system. Work to change social policy: these agencies need funding. We all need access to stable health care.

Pay your damn taxes. Complain, when they’re cut. Any of us could switch places. Yes, it’s scary. That’s why I need you to breathe through your fear. React, in love.

Teach me how to tell these stories, so that you can hear them.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

Love all of God's creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly, more and more every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an abiding, universal love. --Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The risen Christ is with us.

John 20:19-31
Open Cathedral, San Francisco

I speak to you as a child of God.

I speak to you as a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed last April with a stage II melanoma. That means that I had the scariest form of skin cancer you can have—but we caught it, before it invaded my body. It will be a year, next Saturday, since I got that phone call from my doctor. I had surgery, which may have cured me. Chemotherapy makes me exhausted, and sick, and gives me almost constant headaches. I’ll finish that on June 26.

I tell you this so that you will know, I have come close to death. I know a lot about fear. I know about pain. I know about sickness. And I have the best prognosis possible. I also have an amazingly supportive community. I know a lot about hope. I know a lot about love. I know what my body, and my God, have taught me about living a resurrected life.

Thomas didn’t have what I have. He didn’t have what we have. He didn’t have a community that comes together every week, that sings and prays and tells the stories, that eats the bread and drinks the cup, and that remembers and celebrates the risen Christ. He was huddled with his community of friends, in a locked room in a locked house, barricaded against danger from outside. The other disciples had seen Jesus. And they were still just as frightened as Thomas was. They were in that locked room, together. They didn’t know that the story ends in hope, in resurrection, in victory over fear and sin and death, for ever. They were living it, for the first time.

The last time Thomas saw Jesus, Thomas was rubbing the sleep from his own eyes as he watched Jesus being dragged away by Roman guards. Jesus was on his way to face trial for inciting a riot amongst the Jews, by turning over the tables in the temple. Thus, for committing crimes against the Roman state. This kind of journey never ended well. The penalty was a slow, brutal, bloody, painful death.

The disciples knew what crucifixion was. They didn’t have to see it, to know that Jesus was dead. They knew exactly what had happened to him.

He was dead. Dead people don’t come back. He was dead, and wrapped in sheets, and buried underneath the rock. They knew they'd never see him again.

So who was this, suddenly standing in their living room? The doors were locked. He did not have a key. He was not invited. He walked right through the wall.

What would you say, if someone that you know has died, appeared in front of you and said, “Hi! How ya doin’?”

You’d freak out. You’d be terrified. The world would not make sense anymore. This absolutely could not be happening. And yet, it was.

Thomas had said, “I will not know him, unless I see the marks of the nails in his wrists, and put my hand where the spear pierced his side. “

Jesus turned to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here.” Touch the scars that the nails left in my flesh. Feel my pulse, beating. Know that I died, and that I live again. Here I am, standing in front of you.

And that’s when Thomas recognized him. Not by the miracle of walking through the wall, and appearing out of nowhere in front of them. By the scars that suffering and pain and death left on his body. By the evidence, on his skin and between his bones, that Christ had indeed died, and that death could not hold him.

His wounds did not go away. Nothing was erased, covered over, or forgotten. The marks on his skin, told his story better than any special effects or white light or flashy music could have. We know who he is, because we can see where he has been.

Where do we recognize Jesus, today? Where do we see Jesus, on the streets of San Francisco? Look around you for a minute. Look into the faces of the people standing next to you. Each one of us has a story. Each one of us has struggled. Each of us has suffered. We have all been afraid. Some of us have lost jobs, or apartments, or health care. Some of us have lost friends, or family members, people we love very much. We have all lived through grief.

The risen Christ walked through the wall of that house in Jerusalem. He walks today, through the wall of our own fear. When we care for one another, Christ is with us. When we bear each other’s burdens, Christ is with us. When we support one another, to make choices that lead to sobriety and health, Christ is with us. When we offer shelter to a friend who needs it, Christ is with us. When we listen to each other, Christ is with us. When we feed one another, Christ is with us. At night when we are sleeping, Christ is with us. We are never, ever alone. Christ has been, where we are going. The body of Christ knows the worst that humanity can do. And we are loved, and loved, and loved some more.

Christ is with us in our terrible times. Christ is with us, in our triumphs. Christ is with us, in our love and in our joy and in our hope.

And we will all die. But death is not the end of the story. The story ends, in the presence of the risen Christ with each of us, and all of us. The story ends, in our own redemption from sin, and fear, and death. The story ends, in the absolute and unchanging, unbreakable, unconditional, eternal love of God.

We are about to tell the story again, of the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples. We will remember the words of Jesus, “Eat this bread. Drink this cup. Remember me, and I will be with you.”

Come to the table, and eat. Christ is risen. Christ is here. Christ is with us, always. Christ touches each of our wounds. And Christ will raise us up.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gift, grace, and transformation

I'm just back from three days at the Ranch. They’d asked me if I could work this week, because they were hosting a women’s choir that sings for people as they’re dying. I’ve worked with this group twice before, and I know them. They’ve always seemed to like me. The last time I’d seen them, was spring break ‘08. Just before I was diagnosed. A year, a month, and a lifetime ago.

“How are you?”

“Oh. Wow. Well. I was diagnosed with cancer, and I’ll finish chemotherapy in two months.”

They got it. Every one of them. They understood transition. Sacred journey is where they live.

I went to a not-quite workshop, Thursday morning. I ended up being the only participant. The presenter was a uterine cancer survivor, and singer from Oakland. She’s on disability, and knows quite a bit about that system. Since it was just the two of us, we got to have a real conversation.

She asked me to tell her my story, and I did—all of it, the way I wanted to. We talked about valuing strength from our communities, and having had enough of sympathy. She taught me a song, and when I told her about my Easter, asked me to teach her the Troparion. (She's Jewish.) So I sang it for her:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down Death by death,
And on those in the tombs bestowing life,
Bestowing life!

We talked about trampling death. She got that—and stomped along with me.

I told her that I’m not afraid of sickness. Not afraid of dying. Not afraid of God. Not afraid of me. But I am afraid of going through it again, without healthcare.

She told me that she wanted to give me a gift. She took both my hands, looked me in the eyes, and told me that I would always have healthcare. I asked her how she knew. She said something to the effect that I was loved, and I would have what I needed.

I asked, “Can I ask you another question?”

“Yes, you may.”

“I meet people on the street whose access is much more tenuous than mine. God loves them as much as me.”

“Yes, of course.”

Here, I was going to ask the usual: Where is God for them? But I know that there is no answer that would ever satisfy me.

I stopped. Some wisdom from God knows where, made me change the question. I heard myself say, “What can I give them?”

She asked me, "What is the opposite of fear?"


"There you go. That is your gift to them. Take your faith, and your courage, and give them what you have. If you are confident that you will have what you need, you can give to them, from your strength."

That is grace.

I took a whole lot of slow walks, on the trails up there, and worked out my sermon for tomorrow. I’m preaching Thomas, on the street for the first time. I absolutely know that I can do it. And I only could, because of what I’ve been through. My body and my God have taught me what it means, to live a resurrected life.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen!

It’s not just a story, anymore.

Monday, April 13, 2009

I woke up singing

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, love whom we had slain,
Thinking that he’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Up he sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By your touch you call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Feast of the Resurrection

Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

Just got home. There is nothing holding me together, but joy and light and life. Christ is risen, and I’m too tired to move.

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around…

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Great Vigil of Easter

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.

Oh. I knew my body would get it. I didn’t realize, how much.

And I knew I'd get to make the Great Noise. Death is vanquished, for ever. That gong did what it was made for, tonight.

I got to throw the lights, also. Nobody was there to pick up the cue.

I. After waiting in the dark. After coming close to death; after fear, and pain, and near the end of my long sickness. I got to announce the Resurrection.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And on those in the tombs bestowing life,
Bestowing life!

Holy Saturday

I know some things now, about waiting in the dark. I know about fear, uncertainty, and pain. I have tasted grief. I remember horror.

But I have never known despair. My misery has an end date, marked on my and some other people’s calendars. I will get my own health back. God only knows how long I will keep it—but that is true, for all of us. Every moment is sacred.

My body has taught me to believe in the Resurrection. I was diagnosed during Easter season last year, and I have clung to the hope of life and health. God is my grace and my strength. But I knew the Gospel story before I ever had to live it. And I knew the end, before I ever thought about the middle.

The eleven, the women, the crowds whom Jesus healed, and taught, and fed. They did not know. They watched their hope take his last gasping breath, on the wood. The women rose early on that third morning, to wash the body of the friend whom they loved. To give an outlet to their ache, their shock, their grief. To do the last thing they could, for him.

They did not know. How could they? Until that moment, death was death.

It will never be again. The hand of God reached inside the tomb. Jesus woke, so that we all might live.

But on that holy Saturday, there was grief without hope. Their world was shattered. Their love was dead, murdered by the occupying power. Their tears could have gotten them killed, also.

They did not know.

I don’t believe in hell. But I love the idea, of the harrowing of it. Jesus went to the place that only he could break into. Kicked down the door, and dragged the people chained inside, out into freedom, light, and love. Out of desolation, into the embrace of God.

I did the strangest thing I’ve ever done on Holy Saturday. This afternoon, I colored two dozen eggs for Open Cathedral tomorrow. We’re baptizing two kids, outside, in the Tenderloin. In front of fifty witnesses who may or may not have homes or jobs, but who find community in this weekly, rag-tag, Eucharistic feast.

It’ll be wonderful. The eggs are edible, festive, fun evangelism. We’ll give them to all who walk by. It’s going to be a street party.

2 p.m. tomorrow, McAllister and Leavenworth. Come rejoice with us!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

I met a man in the street last week; a homeless veteran, HIV+ for 30 years. He was deciding whether to let the cancer he was just diagnosed with, take him.

He has healthcare benefits. Nothing else: the VA refuses to declare him disabled. That's why he sleeps outside.

I will always have housing, on a friend's floor if nothing else. If I let my healthcare lapse, I may not ever get it back. Cancer is a pre-existing condition, no matter that I beat it. Insurance companies can refuse me.

Cancer comes back. It may not, but it may. The questions are if, and when. I could be free and clear forever. I could have a recurrence in one year, or two, or fifteen. It could cost me nothing but money. It could kill me.

I told his story, and repeated mine, to a group of people I’m very close to. They couldn’t hear what the loss of access, and the threat of it, does to people’s souls. I named fear and anger; they ran away.

Could you not watch with me for one hour?

I look strong, and I am. I have had to be. This body carries everything that the last year has given me. I've gotten used to doing things, that I'd never thought I'd have to.

I know you can’t fix this—but please, please don’t leave me alone. I can’t leave him. I am not separate from him. You are not separate from me. I could be you. Before last April, I was you.

You walked with me through cancer; walk with me, into power. When I was well, and younger in so many ways, someone else’s anger would have scared the shit out of me. Now I get it: Don’t change the subject. Sit. Here.

Let this cup pass from me.

I am not willing to be a sacrifice. I am not, you. I am, yours—but let my suffering be redemptive. Let me learn to communicate from the street to the classroom, to the church. Let me tell this story, in a way that they can hear.

Flaming torches in the garden. Military doctors, insurance executives with swords raised. Shouts, rough hands grabbing.

They came for the man I met. I know they are coming for me. And if me, they can reach anyone.

Please, please understand me. Don’t turn away, back to your comfortable life. My hands are as dirty as yours. The worst thing we can do, is to wash them.

That hammer thuds through the ages. Crucifixion is not merely history. Are you on the timbers yourself? Are you forging the nails? Weeping with Mary? Or are you bearing witness: writing, educating, shouting? Are you working on just social policy, including healthcare access for all people?

Where? I need ideas. Sending a MoveOn petition is not enough.

The system is too big for any one of us to dismantle. But we’re the only ones who can.

My God, my God, for what have you called me?

I told his story again to a friend. She understood. She knew she couldn’t fix it; she sat with me, and felt what I was feeling. Her presence soothed my rage. She shared my grief, and gave me hope.

The women come, to wash the body. Where can it be found?